Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Evidence seized in warrantless search of house admissible where police had mistaken but reasonable belief that the house was abandoned, based on totality of circumstances.

In U.S. v. Harrison, No. 11-2566 (3d Cir. Aug. 7, 2012), Defendant Khayree Harrison was charged with possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute. The physical evidence against him — a gun, scales, pills, and crack cocaine on a table next to the recliner in which he was sitting — was obtained when police surprised Harrison in his rented house, having walked through the open front door without a warrant. Harrison moved to suppress the evidence seized during arrest without a warrant as violating the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. The District Court denied Harrison’s motion to suppress, finding that although Harrison had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his rented house, the police acted under the reasonable (but mistaken) belief that the house was abandoned. Harrison was convicted at trial and sentenced to 62 months’ imprisonment. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the conviction, holding that the District Court properly denied the suppression motion.

The Court recognized that establishing that a person has lost his reasonable expectation of privacy in real property by abandoning it is difficult to establish, but not impossible. Circuit Judge Fuentes wrote that "[b]efore the government may cross the threshold of a home without a warrant, there must be clear, unequivocal and unmistakable evidence that the property has been abandoned." Although the Court found that Harrison had not actually abandoned the rented house and so did possess a reasonable expectation of privacy, for Fourth Amendment purposes the issue was whether the police officers' mistaken belief that the house was abandoned was reasonable enough, under the totality of the circumstances, to justify their warrantless entry.

The police testified that they had observed this particular house over several months to be in a dilapidated condition, its backyard full of trash and overrun by weeds, and the front door unlocked and open.

The Court stated that it would be unreasonable for police to assume that a house is abandoned solely because it is poorly maintained — there is no "trashy house exception" under the Fourth Amendment. But here, police knew that the house had a history as a drug den and had evicted squatters in previous months, so they were familiar with its condition: they observed that the only furnishing was a single mattress on the top floor, drug debris was littered throughout the house, human waste filled the bathtub and toilets, and there was no evidence of running water or electricity.

The Court concluded that "[i]t is one thing to infer that person has abandoned his expectation of privacy in his home based on a one-time observation. It is quite another to observe that same property in that same dilapidated condition with a front door that is always open over the course of several months . . . . Given the combination of the rundown exterior, the always open door, the trashed interior, and the extended observations over time, the police officers were reasonable in their mistaken belief that the house was abandoned."

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