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Drugs suppressed after warrantless entry

Drugs being found in search of bag

Evidence discovered during a warrantless search should have been suppressed because the police lacked probable cause or exigent circumstances to enter a man’s apartment, the Court of Appeal of Virginia has held in a published decision.

Judge Doris H. Causey said “flagrant” police misconduct triggered the exclusionary rule. As there was no urgency — or any other valid reason — to justify exigent circumstances, the evidence was subject to exclusion.

“Under the circumstances, a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that warrantless entry into appellant’s apartment was illegal and unnecessary,” she explained. “Failing to impose the exclusionary rule here would reward ‘a “sloppy study of the law.”’ Thus, we hold that the evidence here is subject to exclusion.”

Senior Judge Jean Harrison Clements and Judge Robert J. Humphreys joined Causey in Baskerville v. Commonwealth (VLW 023-7-084).

‘Disorderly’ call

Richmond City police received a 911 “disorderly” call from Selena Dickens about her boyfriend, Quincy Baskerville. She said he was drinking, often violent when drunk and had vandalized their apartment.

Three officers, including Brady Thornton, didn’t find a disturbance when they arrived. Dickens was at her neighbor’s apartment and she returned home without saying she called the police.

Appearing composed and unharmed, Dickens spoke with Thornton outside her apartment. Police noticed Baskerville standing behind the apartment door and asked him to show his hands; he held only cigarettes.

Thornton asked, “Do you mind if we stop in real quick?” Dickens consented, but Baskerville blocked the door and refused to let them enter. Thornton saw a TV lying face-down on the apartment floor.

‘Powder keg’

When Thornton pressed to enter the apartment, Baskerville became agitated. Thornton moved closer and warned him not to raise his voice.

A shouting match between Baskerville and Thornton escalated. Thornton pushed past the door and entered the apartment with two other officers, who restrained Baskerville on the floor while Thornton interviewed Dickens.

Thornton arrested Baskerville for domestic assault after Dickens said Baskerville hit her. Police found heroin and cocaine in Baskerville’s bag.

On trial for drug possession, Baskerville moved to suppress the drugs. The police, he argued, unlawfully entered his home without a warrant and lacked probable cause or exigent circumstances.

The trial court, however, characterized the situation as “a powder keg” and found that exigent circumstances warranted the search. Baskerville’s motion was denied.

Baskerville pled guilty but reserved the right to appeal the denied suppression motion.

Unlawful entry

“The unlawful ‘physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed,’” Causey explained. “At the ‘very core’ of the Fourth Amendment ‘stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.”

If police have probable cause to enter a home, exigent circumstances may excuse the need for a warrant. However, that can’t be based on a retrospective analysis of the circumstances, the judge pointed out.

“[W]e hold that no exigent circumstances justified the officers’ warrantless entry into appellant’s home,” Causey wrote. “First, there was no urgency requiring immediate entry. … When the police arrived in response to the “disorderly” call, there was no ongoing disorderly conduct or any indication of any other ongoing crime.”

She noted that there were three officers on the scene and they had no reasonable belief that contraband would be found. If the status quo can be maintained while officers seek a warrant, a situation is not urgent.

Causey said there was little possibility of danger to others despite the trial court’s portrayal of the situation as a “powder keg” ready to explode.

“Although appellant became increasingly agitated throughout the encounter, his insistence that the officers not enter his home did not automatically create exigent circumstances or authorize the police to disregard the Fourth Amendment,” the judge wrote. “Neither appellant’s refusal to step outside nor his outburst at Officer Thornton created a genuine possibility of danger to the people present that justified a warrantless entry.”

“The exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense’ is involved. Here, the circumstances surrounding the entry weigh against finding exigency.”

— Judge Doris H. Causey

Even if Baskerville’s threats constituted obstruction of justice, the offense was a nonviolent misdemeanor. Here, the officers were investigating a domestic altercation but only saw property crimes. They didn’t have a reason to believe that Baskerville had committed a violent offense because Dickens reported the domestic assault after they entered.

“‘[T]he exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense’ is involved,” Causey wrote. “Here, the circumstances surrounding the entry weigh against finding exigency.”

As such, the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. Causey vacated Baskerville’s drug offense and remanded the matter to the Richmond Circuit Court for further proceedings.