Utah case expands police powers for entering a home

Editorial

It is said that hard cases make bad law, and that seems to be the case with Brigham City v. Stuart, in which a 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it a little easier for police officers to enter a home without a warrant or without knocking and announcing themselves.

In July 2000, police in Brigham City, Utah, responded to a call about a loud party, arriving about 3 a.m. They heard shouting and looked in the back yard, where they saw two juveniles drinking beer. They peered through a screen door and windows and saw four adults restraining a juvenile, who still managed to punch one of them. At that point they rushed in.

The police arrested four people and charged them with offenses such as disorderly conduct, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and intoxication. They didn’t go to the aid of the person who had been slugged. As attorney Michael Studebaker, who handled the case at the appellate level, explained, the defendants sought to have the evidence suppressed because the police entry was illegal under the Fourth Amendment, which forbids search and seizure without a warrant.

The trial court, Utah appellate courts and the Utah Supreme Court all agreed and ruled the police action was not justified, even though these courts also noted there were certain circumstances under which the police would have been justified in entering without a warrant and without knocking — to render emergency aid, hot pursuit or other exigencies where “a reasonable person would believe that the entry was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons.” They didn’t think the standard had been met in this case.

The state of Utah appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was unanimous in reversing the lower courts.

In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said the court’s opinion was simply “restating well-settled rules of federal law.” Michael Studebaker said “if it were really all that settled they wouldn’t have taken the case.” He believes the ruling expands police power to enter homes without warrants.

Chief Justice John Roberts quoted a previous decision to the effect that an entry by police is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment “as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify (the) action.” But in a case like this, where reasonable people can disagree and where different courts have disagreed, calling one point of view “objective” doesn’t make it so. The court took a subjective opinion and redefined it as objective.

This decision expands police power to enter homes without a warrant. That is unfortunate. The realm in which people can expect government to leave them alone keeps shrinking. More than ever, it doesn’t seem to include private homes.