A recent case, State of Ohio v. Ambrosini and Pregi, in the 7th District of Ohio demonstrates the importance of the warrant requirement before law enforcement may search a person’s house. In January 2014, officers from the Austintown Township Police Department responded to a report of loud music and drug use in an apartment. Upon arriving at the apartment complex, the officers followed the smell of marijuana and loud music to the defendant’s apartment. One officer placed himself near the back sliding door of the apartment, while the other officer was near the front door.
The officer at the back door smelled marijuana emanating from the apartment through a small opening in the back door. The officer also observed a glass pipe and loose green substance which appeared to be marijuana on the defendant’s table. The officers then entered the apartment, seized the glass pipe and marijuana, and cited both defendants for marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia.
Both defendants filed motions to suppress the evidence. At the hearing, both officers testified that they felt an exigent circumstance existed, specifically the destruction of evidence, that justified the entry into the defendant’s apartment without a warrant. Both officers also testified that they had the right to enter the apartment without a warrant because the marijuana was in plain view. The trial court denied the defendants’ motions and the two defendants entered no contest pleas. However, both defendants appealed the decision on their motions.
Search and Seizure – Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement
The defendants asserted on appeal that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress because the police violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by entering their apartment without a warrant and the exigent circumstances doctrine did not apply. Before discussing the holding, let’s first understand what search and seizure is, and what “exigent circumstances” and “plain-view” mean.
Unreasonable search and seizures are prohibited by the United States Constitution. For a search or seizure to be reasonable, it must be supported by a warrant or based upon an exception to the warrant requirement. The Ohio Supreme Court has recognized seven exceptions to the warrant requirement: (1) search incident to lawful arrest; (2) consent signifying waiver of constitutional rights; (3) the stop-and-frisk doctrine; (4) hot pursuit; (5) probable cause to search, and the presence of exigent circumstances; and (6) the plain-view doctrine. For this post, we will limit our discussion to the final two – exigent circumstances and plain-view.
Exigent circumstances justifies a warrantless entry into a home. A warrantless entry is presumed unlawful unless the government demonstrates both probable cause and exigent circumstances. In determining the existence of exigent circumstances, courts look at the “totality of the circumstances.” The most common example of exigent circumstances is known as “hot pursuit.” If the police have probable cause to believe that an individual has committed a crime and they are pursuing him to arrest him, then they have the right to enter a private residence during the pursuit, to search the residence, and to seize evidence found there. However, exigent circumstances does not apply for minor offenses.
Plain view comes in two varieties: in public view and in private view. Items in public view may be seized without a warrant because one cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy in things that are exposed to the public. However, in situation in which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy (i.e., inside a person’s house), a police officer may seize an item in plain view of the officer, even if the discovery was not inadvertent, as long as the officer is on the premises for a lawful purpose and the incriminating nature of the item is immediately apparent.
The trial court held that the officers acted properly by entering the apartment upon witnessing the defendants smoking marijuana in plain view. Specifically, the trial court stated that “the warrantless seizure … of an object in plain view does not violate the Fourth Amendment if (1) the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the object could be plainly viewed, (2) the officer has a lawful right of access to the object, and (3) the incriminating character of the object is immediately apparent.”
The Court of Appeals felt differently. While there was no dispute that the officers were lawfully in the common area outside the apartment, the defendant’s had an expectation of privacy inside the apartment and, therefore, the officers had no lawful right to be inside the apartment. Thus, in order for the officers to have a lawful right to access the apartment, some exigent circumstance had to exist.
The State’s Argument and the Court’s Holding
The State conceded that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement did not apply. Thus, no exception to the warrant requirement existed. However, the State argued that the trial court’s erroneous denial of the motion to suppress was harmless under Ohio Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(A). Specifically, the state argued that the trial court’s error was of no consequences to the convictions of the two defendants because there was enough independent evidence to support their convictions.
The court held that Rule 52(A) was not applicable. Harmless error is defined as “any error, defect, irregularity, or variance which does not affect substantial rights shall be disregarded.” The court could not make a ruling on harmless error because the defendants entered no contest pleas (i.e., no trial occurred). Thus, the Court of Appeals overruled the trial court’s decision to deny the motion to suppress.
The Court of Appeals went on to hold that denial of the motion to suppress was error where the plain-view exception was inapplicable because the officers had no right to be inside the apartment and no exigent circumstances existed since the offense was a misdemeanor.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio Criminal Defense Attorney
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