The Fourth Amendment says the police can’t go into your home or other private place without a warrant. Over the years, we’ve come up with a lot of exceptions to the warrant requirement. So many, in fact, that getting a warrant has become the exception, and the exceptions have become the norm.
That’s because privacy isn’t the only interest society has here. The various exceptions to the warrant requirement allow the police to go in when other important interests outweigh the privacy interest.
One common exception to the warrant requirement is the Emergency exception. Under the emergency rule, the police can go in when there is good reason to believe there’s someone inside who needs help right away — either they’re seriously hurt, or they’re in danger.
In New York, that rule was formalized by the Mitchell case in 1976. The Mitchell rule has two objective conditions, and one subjective condition. If all three are met, then the police would be allowed to enter under the emergency rule. The objective conditions require that a reasonably prudent officer would first have thought there was an emergency, and second would have had probable cause to believe the emergency was inside the place to be searched. The subjective condition was that the police had to actually be going inside to help someone — the emergency couldn’t be a pretext for some other ulterior motive such as looking for evidence.
For about 15 years, now, the U.S. Supreme Court has been rejecting subjective rules like that. So far as federal law is concerned, the Supremes don’t care if the police had some ulterior motive or pretext. So long as there was a legitimate basis for the police conduct, they don’t care what the police were actually thinking.
So in 2006, in the Brigham City case, the Supreme Court specifically addressed the three-part Mitchell rule, and said New York’s subjective condition is not required under federal law. All federal law requires is that the police had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there was an emergency, and probable cause to believe that the emergency was inside the place to be searched.
That’s only the federal rule, however. Federal law only provides a minimum of protections, a base line of individual rights. The states can’t give less protection, but they can certainly grant greater protections. So New York remains free to adopt the Brigham City rule, or keep the Mitchell rule, or come up with a new one. (New York could even get rid of the emergency exception altogether, though that would be a silly result — nobody wants the police to be forced to watch helpless from the sidewalk while someone is being beaten to death on the other side of a window.)
But to date, New York’s courts have neither adopted nor rejected the Brigham City rule. It’s still up in the air whether the subjective prong will continue to be part of the rule in New York. This uncertainty has been going on for nearly four years now, and that’s bad for all concerned. It’s certainly high time to settle the issue.
The other day, we were asked for a solution. We were arguing an appeal here in New York last week, which dealt only with the objective prongs of the rule. The People were appealing from a suppression ruling, and they were claiming that the search was good under the emergency doctrine of Brigham City. The hearing court never applied the subjective prong of the Mitchell rule, so its validity was not really at issue in the case.
So imagine our surprise when the court asked us what New York’s rule ought to be now, whether the state should keep or abandon Mitchell’s subjective prong. We were surprised, but not unprepared of course. We proposed that there does need to be a subjective part of the rule, but not the pretext rule of old.
There needs to be a subjective belief on the part of the police that their search was lawful. They had to have some justification for their search at the time, whether it was an emergency or some other exception to the warrant requirement. Nobody wants a rule that gives the police an incentive to commit a bad search, knowing it’s bad, in the hope that some clever prosecutor down the road can think up some objective justification after the fact.
So what would our proposed rule look like? Let’s take a crack at writing it out in plain English.
Under the Emergency exception, the police may conduct a warrantless search when:
1) Based on evidence actually known to the searching officer before commencing the search, a reasonably prudent officer would have believed that a person was in danger of serious physical injury or death;
2) Based on evidence actually known to the searching officer before commencing the search, a reasonably prudent officer would have thought it more likely than not that the emergency was inside the place to be searched; and
3) Before commencing the search, the searching officer actually and reasonably believed the search to be justified by this or some other exception to the warrant requirement.
This seems to be nothing more than good common sense.
Unlike previous language, we go out of our way here to specify that the objective basis has to be based on facts known to the officers at the time. They can’t justify their search with facts that they only learned about later — if they don’t have reason to think someone’s injured inside, they can’t justify their bad search just because they happened to find an injured person there. Similarly, they can’t justify their search with baseless suppositions that have no foundation in what they knew at the time — if they don’t have reason to think someone’s injured inside, they can’t justify their bad search after the fact with a hypothetical scenario they clearly hadn’t considered at the time. (And if you think this should go without saying, you should read the People’s brief in the case we just argued.)
We also go out of our way to replace legalese with its plain language definition. So “basis approximating probable cause,” for example, becomes “more likely than not.” This makes the rule more comprehensible, and thus more easy for police to follow and courts to enforce. We’re a big fan of plain language.
Most importantly, of course, we changed the pretext language of Mitchell to a more reasonable requirement that the police at least think they have some lawful basis for their intrusion. And that they have some reasonable basis to think so. They don’t have to have subjectively thought there was an emergency at hand, but they had to have subjectively thought their search wasn’t unlawful.
Any other rule, we think, would send precisely the wrong message to the police. The cops would have an incentive to go ahead and commit searches they know to be bad, on the off chance that some clever prosecutor can think up a justification after the fact (which is precisely what happened in the case we just argued, if you’re wondering).
We could be wrong, however. So we invite suggestions on what the New York rule ought to be. What do you think?