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Officer is immune for home entry

A persistent police officer who decided to enter a darkened house to investigate suspicious circumstances is vindicated as an appeals court accords him immunity from a lawsuit by homeowners who claimed they were startled by the officer’s intrusion.

The decision by a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the ruling of U.S. District Judge Sam Wilson, who held the officer’s search was unreasonable under clearly established law.

The appeals court opinion court today focuses on the unusual circumstances at the Botetourt County home of the Hunsberger family on a winter night in 2007.  It turns out that a furtive teen drinking party was going on, but the officer called to the scene by a suspicious neighbor did not know that.  He found a darkened house where people were moving about, apparently trying to avoid detection.

No one answered the doorbell.  When the officer finally entered the home after midnight, no one responded to his shouts.

With the officer was a worried citizen who was trying to locate his minor stepdaughter.  Her car was parked outside, but she could not be seen and she was not answering her cellphone.

The officer apparently startled a sleeping child and woke up the Hunsbergers.  The Hunsbergers claimed the officer’s entry was a Fourth Amendment violation, but the 4th Circuit today held the circumstances justified the deputy’s intrusion.

The officer was told the family might have been out of town, and a nearby home had recently burned.  The officer was rightly suspicious that vandalism was afoot, the court held.  “We believe that the objective circumstances at the time of Wood’s entry would cause a reasonable officer to believe that there was an emergency requiring prompt entry.”  (The analysis contrasts with that of Judge Wilson.  His opinion highlights facts suggesting the officer accurately suspected a teenage drinking party, not random vandalism.)

Furthermore, the 4th Circuit panel reasoned, the officer knew there was a minor girl missing in the middle of the night, possibly in the home and in need of help.  “When a child goes missing, time is of the essence,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III for the panel.

The court found it was reasonable for the officer to bring the worried stepfather along as he entered the house to identify the missing girl if she were found.

Elizabeth Dillon,  attorney for the officer, welcomed the reversal by the 4th Circuit panel.  She said the officer had no choice but to enter the Hunsberger home.  “He did what any officer in that situation would have done.  He went into the house to make sure everything was okay.”

By Peter Vieth

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