Wisconsin Supreme Court Finds Warrantless Entry and Evidence of Marijuana Constitutional Under Hot Pursuit Doctrine

By Reddin & Singer

Handcuffs

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, criminal defendants are protected from unconstitutional searches and seizures. This means that police cannot enter the home of an individual or search a place like a vehicle without probable cause to do so and a warrant, unless certain circumstances apply. A recent case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court considers whether exigent circumstances justifying entering an individual’s home exist when a police officers claims to be in “hot pursuit” of an individual who is believed to have committed crimes.

In State of Wisconsin v. Weber, Mr. Weber was driving in Arpin, Wisconsin, when a police officer noticed that a tail light in his car was out and that he appeared to be weaving in and out of traffic. The officer attempted to pull him over to let him know about the tail light, but Mr. Weber did not pull over. Instead, he continued onwards before pulling into a driveway and a garage. The police officer followed Mr. Weber, parked in the driveway, and exited his vehicle just as Mr. Weber was getting out. He noticed that Mr. Weber was having difficulty standing and ran after Mr. Weber. He told Mr. Weber to stop, but Mr. Weber continued to enter his house. The officer was able to grab Mr. Weber and explain the problem, and they walked back outside. The officer asked Mr. Weber if he had been drinking, and he admitted he had, but he refused field sobriety tests. Mr. Weber was arrested and searched. He also consented to a search of his vehicle, where officers found marijuana and a marijuana pipe.

At trial, Mr. Weber moved to suppress evidence of his arrest, arguing that it was illegal because the officer did not have probable cause to enter his property and arrest him, nor a warrant to do so. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, but a court of appeals reversed the denial, finding that the warrantless entry was not justified. The State of Wisconsin filed a petition for review.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin acknowledged that under the Fourth Amendment, the warrantless entry or search of a home is presumptively prohibited. However, courts have held that warrantless entries are acceptable under exigent circumstances, including when there is (1) a hot pursuit of a suspect, (2) a threat of safety to others, (3) a risk that evidence will be destroyed, or (4) a risk the suspect will flee. In this case, the State of Wisconsin argued that the hot pursuit exception applied. In order to apply this exception, the Supreme Court had to first find that probable cause to believe Mr. Weber was a suspect existed and that the officer was in hot pursuit. As to probable cause, the Supreme Court found that at the time of his arrest, Mr. Weber would have violated two Wisconsin statutes, failing to abide by a traffic stop and resisting an officer, making him a criminal suspect. Particularly in light of Mr. Weber’s actions to avoid the officer, the Supreme Court held that the officer did have probable cause to enter his home and seize Mr. Weber.

Secondly, the Supreme Court held that the officer was in hot pursuit of Mr. Weber. Relying on prior case law finding that a retreat into one’s home constituted fleeing an officer and thus allowed a hot pursuit, the Supreme Court held that the officer had a reasonable basis to believe that Mr. Weber was fleeing and that he needed to be pursued. Moreover, the Supreme Court dismissed any argument that the hot pursuit doctrine applied only to felons rather than those, like Mr. Weber, who would be charged only with misdemeanors. However, the Supreme Court was careful to note that it was not setting a firm rule that any time an officer followed a suspect into a home under the belief that the suspect had committed an offense, this constituted a hot pursuit. Instead, the Court stated that the “reasonableness” of the hot pursuit must be considered. In this case, the Supreme Court held the officer’s actions were reasonable because he immediately followed Mr. Weber to his home after he failed to yield to a traffic stop, he attempted to stop Mr. Weber before he entered his home but was unsuccessful, and he limited his seizure of Mr. Weber to grabbing his arm and leading him back outside. Accordingly, the court held that the application of the hot pursuit doctrine was appropriate in these circumstances.

One of the most powerful legal mechanisms available to a criminal defendant during a trial is a motion to suppress evidence that was obtained in an unconstitutional manner. Defendants, however, must take care to make sure that the actions of the police were not justified by a constitutional exception, such as exigent circumstances. To speak with an experienced Wisconsin drug crime attorney, contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP through our website or give us a call today at (414) 271-6400.