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Name: U.S. v. Struckman
Case #: 08-30463
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 05/04/2010
Summary

The Fourth Amendment warrant requirement for home searches is subject to an exigency exception requiring the government to establish probable cause for the search and the existence of exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless intrusion. A neighbor telephoned 911 at approximately 11:45 a.m. and reported that she saw a male subject wearing a black jacket throw a red backpack over the fence of her neighbor’s residence and then climb over the fence into the backyard. She believed the owners were not home. Responding to the call, three police officers looked into the backyard and saw appellant with a black jacket and a red backpack on the ground. When appellant saw the officers staring at him, he appeared surprised but did not attempt to flee. During the next 25 seconds, one of the officers drew his gun and ordered appellant to his knees, and appellant complied. The officers climbed over the fence, appellant was handcuffed, the backpack was searched, and an unloaded gun was discovered. After the officer had climbed into the yard, and before the backpack search, appellant repeatedly stated he lived in the house and asked the officer to use appellant’s cell phone to call his mother to confirm he lived there. As it turned out, appellant did live there. The trial court denied appellant’s suppression motion and he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. On appeal, appellant argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the police entry into his backyard. The government argued that the entry into the backyard without a warrant was justified on the basis of exigent circumstances — an exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement of a warrant for search of a home and curtilage. The court found that even if the police had probable cause to believe appellant was committing a misdemeanor trespass, the government could not establish that exigent circumstances existed to overcome the need for a warrant. There was no objective evidence establishing a need to prevent harm to the officers; to prevent destruction of evidence; to prevent the escape of the suspect; or that hot pursuit was involved. Because the search was critical to the conviction, both the denial of the motion and the judgment were reversed. As an aside, the court observed that the assumption that there was probable cause in this case was weak and that commission of a misdemeanor offense that is not inherently dangerous militates against a finding of exigent circumstances.