[A]t the time police in this case entered the cell phone tower, we find they lacked probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless entry.

State v. Haputa

2020 – Ohio – 6925

Fifth District Appellate Court

Ashland, Ohio

On Friday June 28, 2019 at 1:37 a.m., Lt. James Shreffler of the Ashland Police Department observed lights were on at a cell phone tower, and the door was propped open. The gate to the fenced in area around the tower was open, although the lock did not appear to have been tampered with. An unmarked vehicle was present at the tower, and music was playing inside. Lt. Shreffler determined this was suspicious for someone to be working at the tower at that time of night and was concerned the tower was being burglarized or vandalized. His analysis and conclusion at this moment would be foundation of litigation in this case.

Lt. Shreffler was unable to make contact with Verizon at the number on the tower, as the number had been disconnected. He called for backup assistance.  Officer Leah Ziesler arrived at the scene, and the two entered the tower through the open door. Lt. Shreffler went to the left, and made contact with Mr. William Haputa. Mr. Haputa told the officer he was in the tower performing maintenance, and was working at the unusual hour in order to shut down the tower during a time when there was less cell phone traffic.

Officer Ziesler went to the right upon entering the building, and observed a glass marijuana bong in plain view, as well as a container containing a green substance.   Mr. Haputa threw his shirt over the items in a feeble attempt to conceal them. Mr. Haputa gave consent to search his person and his vehicle. Marijuana was found in a container in his vehicle.

Mr. Haputa was charged in the Ashland Municipal Court with possession of Drug Paraphernalia and Possession of Marijuana. He filed a Motion to Suppress on the basis the officers entered the cell phone tower without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the Motion to Suppress, he plead No Contest, was found guilty and subsequently filed an appeal.

The Fifth District Appellate Court in a two to one decision held that Lt. Shreffler violated the Fourth Amendment when he and Officer Ziesler entered the cell phone tower.  The court held that law enforcement did not have consent, a warrant or an exigent circumstance, holding “[A]t the time police in this case entered the cell phone tower, we find they lacked probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless entry.”.

Information for this case as obtained from State v. Haputa, 2020 – Ohio – 6925.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Law enforcement can legally cross the threshold of a doorway three ways; with consent – a knowingly, voluntarily and intelligent waiver, a warrant – either an arrest warrant or search warrant or an exigent circumstance and there are three; Fresh Pursuit, Destruction of Evidence, and Danger either inside or outside [rare]. Here, the court determined that there was no danger inside when they opined “[T]he only fact relied upon by police to establish exigent circumstances was the presence of someone at the tower at an unusual hour. We find all other facts available to the officer pointed to the lawful presence of a person at the scene: there were no signs the lock was cut, both the gate and the door were left open, lights were on, music was playing, and a vehicle was parked in open view.”.
  1. What is lost on two of the justices in this case? Judge William Hoffman and Judge Earle Wise disregarded the totality of the circumstances. Shreffler is a long-time law enforcement professional of Ashland Police.  He knows his city and to see a cell phone tower open at 1:37 a.m. is what in normal parlance is called a ‘clue’.  What should have raised the bar for the judiciary is that the cell phone is critical infrastructure.  If these two judges could not see past an intact lock, lights on, music playing and a vehicle parked in plain view, all of which can occur during a valid breaking and entering.  Then certainly Lt. Shreffler had a duty to assure that nefarious activity was not on-going under the Community Caretaking Doctrine.  The Community Caretaking Doctrine provides law enforcement another exception to the Fourth Amendment to enter a building without a warrant if there is a duty of care to the community.  In this case, though Mr. Haputa was a lawful occupant of the cell phone tower, the damage to the community by incapacitating a cell phone tower is substantial.  Lt. Shreffler should be commended by protecting his community when he entered the cell phone tower at 1:37 a.m.
  1. The court highlighted facts, that when viewed under the fluorescent lights of an office and not in a cell phone tower at 1:37 a.m. shifted the Fourth Amendment balance in favor of the marijuana consumer. This vacuum view of the facts is yet another example as to why law enforcement is the Hardest Job in America.  For law enforcement officers who work in the Fifth District this case will make reasonable officers hesitate when time could be of the essence.

Does your agency train on Exigent Entries?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.