Every day, firefighters respond to calls that require them to enter people’s homes. Occasionally, these entries lead to the discovery of illegal activity. What happens to evidence discovered in this way was the subject of U.S. v. Infante, U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, No. 11-2156 (2012).
On June 25, 2010, the Alfred (Maine) Fire Department responded to a fire and rescue call at the residence of Robert Wayne Infante. The dispatcher reported a propane explosion in which a person sustained a large cut and finger amputation, but had no information indicating any fire or structure involvement.
En route, the ambulance met Infante driving himself to the hospital. He stopped and the personnel began treating him. Responders saw that Infante had a number of superficial shrapnel wounds on his chest, was missing the top of the middle finger of his left hand, and had a deep cut between his thumb and index finger. He told them that he was “fueling a butane lighter when it exploded,” and that the explosion occurred inside his house. Although they encouraged him to go to the hospital by ambulance, he refused to do so and drove to the hospital himself. The fire department continued to his residence.
Upon arrival, the firefighters checked the perimeter of the house for signs of a fire or explosion, but found neither. They determined that the front and back doors were locked. However, through an open, screened window, they saw a blood trail on the floor and heard a hissing sound that some of them thought sounded like running water.
Lt. Marc Cunningham, the officer in charge, made the decision to enter the house to search for the source of the explosion. He later testified that he wanted to ensure there were no hazards in the house.
Once inside, firefighters saw that the blood trail led from a cellar door to a bathroom, where Cunningham confirmed that water running from a faucet was causing the hissing sound. The firefighters continued to follow the blood trail down the cellar stairs, where they observed what appeared to be marijuana plants and growing equipment.
Cunningham directed the firefighters to continue to search for the source of the explosion and one of them observed more marijuana plants in another part of the basement. Another firefighter continued following the blood trail until it stopped. Because there was no indication that the explosion had occurred at the apparent inception of the blood trail, he walked further into the cellar until he accidentally kicked an object that looked like an upside down hubcap. Underneath it, the firefighter saw what appeared to be three pipe bombs. The fire department then notified the state police and the fire marshal’s office, which seized this evidence. Ultimately, Infante was charged with several felonies relating to controlled substances and destructive devices. He moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was discovered pursuant to a search that violated his Fourth Amendment rights, since no search warrant was issued.
The court began by quoting from Michigan v. Tyler, 436U.S. 499(1978), which said that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. This protection does not wane “simply because the official conducting the search wears the uniform of a firefighter rather than a policeman, or because his purpose is to ascertain the cause of a fire rather than to look for evidence of a crime.” The court went on to say, though, that there are a few well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement, and one of them is known as the “emergency doctrine.” This doctrine permits a warrantless entry to property when there is a reasonable belief that swift action is required to safeguard life or prevent serious harm.
The court said that for the emergency doctrine to apply in this case, the firefighters had to be able to show, first, that they believed that there was an emergency and second, why they associated the perceived emergency with the area that they searched. The court also said that it must consider the totality of the circumstances confronting the firefighters, often including a need for an on-the-spot judgment based on incomplete information and ambiguous facts.
The court said that the firefighters knew the following objective facts before entering the house: They had been directed to respond to a “fire call and rescue” at Infante’s residence; a propane explosion had been reported that had severed Infante’s finger and caused a deep laceration on his hand; two fire -department members had witnessed Infante’s significant injuries, including shrapnel-like wounds to his chest; Infante had told firefighters that a butane lighter had exploded in his hand; Infante said that the explosion occurred inside his house; the exterior of the house and immediate surroundings revealed no signs of an explosion; there was a blood trail inside the house; and they heard a hissing sound that was probably, but not necessarily, the sound of running water. The court concluded that these facts provided them with a reasonable basis to believe that there was an emergency inside the house, which justified their entry.
The court then concluded that the firefighters had a reasonable basis to associate the emergency with the place where they searched. They had reason to believe that the explosion occurred inside the house, and there was no indication of an explosion anywhere else. Indeed, Infante had told them that the explosion occurred inside the house. So, they were justified in looking through the window where they saw a blood trail. This trail led from a bathroom to the cellar, so they limited the scope of their search for the explosion’s origin to the cellar. It was at the bottom of the stairwell in the cellar that they observed marijuana plants and growing equipment in plain view. They continued to follow the blood trail until it ended, but there was no sign of an explosion at that location. Consequently, they were justified in searching further to find the source of the explosion. It was this extension of the search that uncovered the pipe bombs. The court then concluded that the search of Infante’s cellar fell within the emergency exception to the warrant requirement and denied his motion to suppress the evidence.
This case shows us the following:
- The emergency doctrine lets firefighters search people’s homes in certain, limited circumstances.
- Such searches must be restricted to those areas where the emergency is believed to be located.
- Evidence discovered in plain view during these searches may legally be seized by law-enforcement officers.