No human was home but there was a pit bull and a marijuana grow operation inside.
Based on the severity of the house fire, it was reasonable for the officers to ensure that the neighboring houses were evacuated … Thus, it was reasonable for the officers to take measures to ensure that no one was inside.
State v. Morehead
2023 – Ohio – 1314
Ninth District Court
Medina County, Ohio
April 24, 2023
On the afternoon of Sunday January 3, 2021, Sergeant Wagner and Officer Deeks of the Medina Police Department responded to a call that a house was on fire on Sugarhouse Lane. Sergeant Wagner’s training involved evacuating houses in a fire situation. Officer Deeks had obtained a volunteer firefighter certificate approximately two years prior to the incident but the certificate had expired at the time of the incident.
Upon arriving at the scene, Officer Deeks observed a substantial house fire at 1013 Sugarhouse Lane.
Medina Police and Fire arrived to discover that 1013 Sugarhouse Lane was on fire and both departments quickly went to work.
Officer Deeks immediately assisted in the evacuating of the residents of that house. Thereafter, Officer Deeks began the process of evacuating the two houses that were located on each side of the house that was on fire. Officer Deeks and Sergeant Wagner gave testimony that it was standard procedure to evacuate the houses located on both sides of a burning house. The officers identified a number of dangers created by a house fire. In addition to the concern of the fire spreading, there are also a number of scenarios where a fire can cause explosions. Another concern is that the smoke created by the fire can travel through the air and cause problems with smoke inhalation for neighbors.
After making sure that no people remained in the burning house, Officer Deeks went to the house located at 1005 Sugarhouse Lane and found that its occupants had gathered in the driveway along with the occupants of the burning house. Officer Deeks told the occupants of both houses to exit the driveway and walk to the street corner in order to avoid any dangers associated with the fire. Officer Deeks then walked to Mr. Morehead’s house located at 1021 Sugarhouse Lane and pounded on the front door. Although no one answered the door, Officer Deeks noticed a pickup truck parked in the driveway. At that point, Officer Deeks returned to the occupants of the other two houses and reemphasized the importance of walking to the street corner. Officer Deeks also repositioned his vehicle.
Sergeant Wagner and Officer Deeks of the Medina Police Department made several attempts to warn the occupants of 1021 Sugarhouse Lane that the house next door was on fire. After several minutes the officers forced entry and found a pit bull and a grow operation but no occupants. Was this entry lawful?
Thereafter, Officer Deeks approached a neighbor and asked if he had a phone number for the occupant of 1021 Sugarhouse Lane. The neighbor responded in the negative. Officer Deeks contacted dispatch to run the plates on the truck parked in the driveway in hopes of obtaining a phone number, but that effort was also unsuccessful. Officer Deeks again knocked on the front door. While no one answered the door, Officer Deeks noticed a pit bull inside the house. Officer Deeks proceeded to circle around the house to the back deck. When Officer Deeks peered inside, he heard a radio playing but he did not see anyone. As Officer Deeks returned to the front of the house, his body camera captured video of the house fire. The fire appeared to be expanding as much more smoke was coming from the house than before.
After retrieving a dog snare, pry bar, and sledgehammer, Officer Deeks and Sergeant Wagner pried open the front door of Mr. Morehead’s house. The officers yelled to see if anyone was in the residence. There was no answer. Multiple officers assisted in removing the dog from an upstairs bedroom. Officer Deeks and Sergeant Wagner then walked into the basement to look for people. The officers were concerned that there might be someone who was sleeping, hiding, or unconscious. The officers noticed that a portion of the basement was sectioned off with a black plastic sheet. The officers could hear the sound of a fan coming from the sectioned-off area and they noticed that the plastic sheet had a zipper. The officers unzipped the sheet to make sure that there were no people behind it. While they did not find anyone behind the sheet, they observed that the area was being used to grow marijuana. Based on these observations, the officers were able to obtain a search warrant to search the area where the marijuana was being grown. That search gave rise to the charges in this case.
In denying the motion to suppress, the trial court concluded that the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement applied in this case. The trial court found that the dangers associated with the house fire constituted a set of circumstances that justified a reasonable belief on the part of the officers that entering the house was necessary in order to protect the people who lived there.
Mr. Morehead filed a Motion to Suppress that was denied, he plead No Contest and was found guilty of one count of Illegal Cultivation of Marijuana. Mr. Morehead appealed this decision to the Ninth District Appellate Court.
Did Medina Police Sergeant Wagner and Officer Deeks Lawfully Force Entry to 1021 Sugarhouse Lane?
Established Case Law
Mr. Morehead’s chief argument on appeal is the officers’ decision to enter his home could not be reasonably justified by the existence of exigent circumstances or the need to render emergency aid. Mr. Morehead maintains that the evidence presented at the suppression hearing did not support the conclusion that the fire presented a threat to his house or that there was someone inside the home who required emergency aid.
“There are a number of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, including * * * the community-caretaking exception, which courts sometimes refer to as the “‘emergency-aid exception’” or “‘exigent-circumstance exception.’” State v. Dunn, 2012-Ohio-1008
“The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.” Dunn at ¶ 18, quoting Wayne v. United States, 318 F.2d 205, 212 (D.C.Cir.1963).
The emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement allows officers to enter a dwelling without a warrant and without probable cause when they reasonably believe, based on specific and articulable facts, that a person within is in need of immediate aid. Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392 (1978).
Application of Facts to Case Law
To the extent Mr. Morehead contends that the trial court’s factual findings regarding the dangers presented by the fire were not supported by competent, credible evidence, his argument is not well-taken. Mr. Morehead points to Officer Deeks’ body camera footage as well as the officers’ testimony at the suppression hearing in support of his contention that the “potential” dangers associated with house fires were not present in this case.
Officer Deeks testified that upon responding to scene it became immediately apparent that the house fire was “substantial[.]” A review of Officer Deeks’ body camera video shows that he arrived to a frenzied situation where the occupants of 1013 Sugarhouse Lane were making their way out of the burning house. The footage makes clear that the house fire was significant, and the smoke was beginning to emanate into the open air. The amount of smoke being released into the air increased considerably in a matter of minutes. The video footage further shows that the wind was pushing the smoke toward Mr. Morehead’s house. By the time that the officers pried open the front door, smoke from the house fire could be seen in the air above Mr. Morehead’s house. Accordingly, Mr. Morehead has failed to demonstrate on appeal that the trial court’s findings were not supported by competent, credible evidence.
Analysis, Conclusion and Holding
Under these circumstances, where the State presented specific and articulable facts supporting the conclusion that entry into Mr. Morehead’s house was warranted, the trial court did not err in concluding that the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement was applicable in this case. Based on the severity of the house fire, it was reasonable for the officers to ensure that the neighboring houses were evacuated. Although no one answered when Officer Deeks knocked on Mr. Morehead’s door, there were a number of facts indicating that someone might be inside the house, including the radio playing and the truck parked in the driveway. Thus, it was reasonable for the officers to take measures to ensure that no one was inside. It follows that the trial court did not err in determining that the emergency aid exception was applicable in this case.
Mr. Morehead’s assignment of error is overruled and his conviction of O.R.C. §2925.04 Illegal Cultivation of Marijuana F-5 is upheld.
This case was issued by the Ninth District Appellate Court and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne.
Information for this article was obtained from State v. Morehead, 2023 – Ohio – 1314.
- There are three legal ways law enforcement can cross the threshold of a doorway. Consent, warrant [arrest or search] and Exigent Circumstance. There are three Exigent Circumstances recognized by the court FED – Fresh Pursuit, Destruction of Evidence and Danger; either inside or outside the building. There is an additional Exigent Circumstance codified in the State of Ohio, O.R.C. §2933.33 Search of Premises for Illegal Manufacture of Methamphetamine. In this case the Ninth District Appellate Court determined that the neighbor’s house fire provided an Exigent Circumstance that someone inside Mr. Morehead’s house could have been in imminent danger. Consequently, forcing entry, securing the canine and searching the house for humans who may be in danger was objectively reasonable.
- If law enforcement enters a house in similar circumstances, officers may only search the home for humans to assure that they are warned to exit the home. Officers cannot search beyond the areas where a human could not be located. In this case the marijuana grow operation was nestled behind a black plastic sheet. This areas was large enough for both a human and a grow operation, so the officers were lawfully in the spot for observation as the officers actions comported with the Plain View Doctrine three-part test established by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday June 4, 1990:
Law enforcement must be legally on the premises from where the observation is made.
Law enforcement must not violate the Fourth Amendment to make the observation.
Incriminating nature of the item must be immediately apparent.
Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 142 (1990)
For more information on the Plain View Doctrine see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/plain-view/
- Medina Police Sergeant Wagner and Officer Deeks should be highly commended for their quick-thinking and actions that may have saved a life.
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