The Court of Appeals recently granted an application for interlocutory appeal to determine whether a Cobb County Judge rightly denied P.H.'s motion to suppress. Specifically, the issue will be whether exigent circumstances justify the nonconsensual entry of the police into a home when the exigency arises by an alleged fleeing felon who begins his flight while already inside the home.
The police were summoned to an apartment complex after the maintenance worker observed several people walking back and forth between an apartment building and a particular vehicle. The maintenance man suspected drug activity, although there was no evidence that drugs were a problem in this area or that the maintenance man actually saw, heard or smelled any drug activity.
When police arrived, they discovered that the vehicle in question was stolen. The maintenance man was only able to describe one of the individuals he had seen: a shirtless white man with tattoos. Police starting going door to door at the apartment building. In one apartment, a resident said he too had seen a shirtless white man with tattoos walking a large tan dog earlier. At the eighth door they went to, P.H. answered the door. When he did, police saw a white man (not P.H.) wearing a black tanktop with tattoos on his arms inside the apartment. When the tattooed man saw police, he darted further inside the apartment and around a hallway corner. Police observed a large tan dog in the apartment. At that time, the police swarmed the apartment, claiming they were justified by the exigent circumstance of detaining a fleeing felon. Drugs were located inside the apartment in plain view, and P.H. was charged with possessing them.
Generally, police entry into a private home is impermissible absent a warrant. Exceptions to the warrant requirement include consent and exigent circumstances, which typically refers to the imminent destruction of evidence or danger posed to a person or property. One type of exigent circumstance is when the police are chasing a fleeing felon. This occurs when the police chase someone that they have probable cause to believe committed a crime from a public area into a private home. Pursuant to this fleeing felon doctrine, the United States Supreme Court has previously upheld as legal police entry into a home when the defendant's flight commenced as he was standing in the threshold of his open front door.
In P.H.'s case, among other issues, the flight began when the alleged fleeing felon was fully inside the home. No court has ever considered whether the fleeing felon doctrine can be extended this far. Although the case has not yet been docketed at the Court of Appeals, it will be soon. This blog entry will be updated when a ruling is made.