Warrant, Probable Cause Requirements in Police Home Searches – U.S. v. Hill

Police officers usually have to get a warrant in order to enter and search your home without your consent. Some limited exceptions to this rule exist for circumstances in which the officer is in “hot pursuit” of a suspect, for example, or another emergency is involved. In order to get a warrant, the cops have to show that there is probable cause to believe that the search will turn up contraband or evidence. A less exacting “reasonable suspicion” standard, on the other hand, applies to situations when police stop a person on the street and conduct a physical search.

door-knocker-1336567-m.jpgIn a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit explained how those basic requirements applied to the search of a home where cops found three men suspected of violating the terms of their probation agreements.

Mr. Hill was convicted on federal drug charges and was serving a period of supervised release at the time of the events in question. The terms of the release required Hill to notify his probation officer in the event that he moved and to allow probation officers to visit his home at any time and confiscate any contraband that they noticed in plain sight during these visits.

In February 2013, probation officials got wind of the fact that Hill may have moved without letting them know. They told local police, who obtained a warrant for Hill’s arrest and executed it at his new residence. The officers found Hill and two other individuals on supervised release upon entering the home. After apprehending all three men and performing a protective sweep of the home, the officers went through the home to look for contraband and other evidence that the three men had violated the terms of their probation. They found packaging for synthetic marijuana as well as used needles, which they seized, along with cell phones, scales, and an intravenous drug kit.

The officers then also had a drug dog sniff around inside the home. The dog led the officers to an out-of-place ceiling tile, behind which the officers found a plastic bag with an unidentified substance inside it. They contacted a magistrate judge and obtained a search warrant for the home. The officers found heroin, prescription pills, suspected LSD, synthetic marijuana, and drug use paraphernalia during the subsequent search. Hill and the other men were charged with various crimes related to the intent to distribute heroin.

Rejecting Hill’s motion to suppress the evidence found in the home, a trial court held that the officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct the original walk through and dog sniff search. The court said the officers didn’t need a warrant to conduct the searches because Hill had agreed to the probation deal allowing probation officers to visit his home at any time. Meanwhile, the court said the evidence uncovered during those two searches gave the officers sufficient probable cause to obtain a warrant and further search the home. Hill was convicted and sentenced to 27 months in prison.

Reversing the decision on appeal, however, the Fourth Circuit held that the terms of the probation agreement didn’t justify a warrantless search of the home. “[L]aw enforcement officers generally may not search the home of an individual on supervised release who is not subject to a warrantless search condition unless they have a warrant supported by probable cause,” the Court said. “Here, the officers did not have a warrant when they conducted the walk-through and dog sniff, and those searches were therefore unlawful.”

Search and seizure issues like this one often come up in criminal cases, particularly those involving alleged drug offenses. It’s important that a person facing criminal charges seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The West Virginia criminal lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

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