Is a strong showing of probable cause enough to search without a warrant?

What if the police “illegally” entered a home (i.e. without a warrant) and obtained evidence that showed a person had mostly likely been driving an SUV with a blood alcohol level of around .14 (nearly twice the legal limit), but that the police also managed to convince the judge that they “eventually” would have obtained the evidence by lawful means regardless? More specifically, that they had been working on getting a warrant when they gathered the evidence?

Should the evidence be tossed out, so that the police will be deterred in the future from entering homes without a warrant?

Well, the Utah Court of Appeals just ruled on this. The case involved a woman, whom the court calls “Brierley,” who was suspected of being in a car crash. Naturally, the cops felt the gal was likely under the influence, and that she was hiding in her home, so they went in the home without a warrant, and got their woman (thanks to the housekeeper – more on her below).

The trial court threw out the evidence because the judge felt the cops had illegally entered a home without a warrant. The prosecutors appealed, and the Court of Appeals said the police had “a strong showing of probable cause” to search the house for the Defendant. They went on to say that because witnesses had described both the car and the driver (a blonde woman) that was involved in the wreck, and also got the license plate number off the car that was a pretty good indication the police could have gotten a warrant for Brierley.

The Court of Appeals also pointed out that “a damaged, steaming vehicle” that matched the witness descriptions was parked in Brierley’s “open garage.” Apparently, she was not very good at hiding evidence. To make matters worse for Brierley, the housekeeper made comments that she believed Brierley had been driving that particular car (a black Mercedes SUV), that she had seen her exit the garage, and the housekeeper also felt that Brierley appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. We can forgive the housekeeper because had she not come clean, the cops may have arrested her as the driver (assuming she was blonde, the court did not say).

The police had taken steps to seek a warrant, and they had even contacted the City Attorney, and the necessary documents for the warrant were beginning to be drafted on the cop’s laptop. But, the Court of Appeals had to make a guess: would the warrant have been signed by a judge?

The Court of Appeals said yes. This was a hit-and-run case, and when “Sergeant Joseph” saw the car in the garaged he “smelled hot fluid and noticed that the vehicle was steaming and had front end damage.” Some people might say that kind of evidence is pretty overwhelming.

The Court of Appeals said, “[We] have a high level of confidence that a search warrant would have been issued, in which case [the police] would have searched the house, found Brierley in it, and proceeded with questioning, field sobriety tests, breath tests, and license checks.”

Then they said the bottom line was that all the evidence at issue “would have been inevitably discovered.”

Now, you may be thinking that this gives the cops no deterrence. In other words, cops will now feel free to just go into a home then say, “Hey, but we most likely could have gotten a license!”

The Court noted that there is a deterrent effect in throwing out evidence. But said, “the deterrence rationale has so little basis that the evidence should be received.”

Further, in this case, the prosecutors admitted that “there were no [emergency] circumstances justifying the officers’ entry into the house,” and they even asked the Court of Appeals to assume [for argument’s sake] that it was “unlawful for the officers to be in the house.”

Despite all of that, the Court of Appeals said the judge was wrong, and reversed him, saying the “inevitable discovery doctrine” should have allowed for the admission of the evidence regarding 1) the field sobriety tests, 2) the breath tests, 3) Brierley’s statements, and 4) the license check.

The Court of Appeals said they did not condone the officers’ entry into Mrs. Brierley’s home before they got a warrant, but noted the cops were apparently only on the inside of the threshold, rather than several feet away on the outside of the threshold, and they said that made a “material difference.”

Essentially, they said, although it’s true Brierley’s came out from her bedroom while the officers were still in the process of seeking the search warrant, that fact merely sped up the inevitable process that the evidence would be gathered, and the Court of Appeals said “it was highly unlikely” that the presence of the cops on one side of the threshold or the other had any significant effect on this sequence of events.

Because of that, the field sobriety tests, the breath tests, Mrs. Brierley’s statements, and the information from checking Brierley’s license were all deemed to be admissible.

Layton City v. Brierley, 2015 UT App 207, ¶¶ 20-23

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