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Protective Sweep of a Home Warranted When Threat of an Unaccounted-For Third Party with Access to Firearms Exists

United States v. Jordan Laudermilt
Case No.: 11-4624 (4th Cir., May 3, 2012)

by Natalie Scurto, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In this case, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s grant of Defendant’s Motion to Suppress a firearm and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court found that the firearm was not seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

On February 27, 2011, police responded to reports that Defendant was armed and threatening to kill his girlfriend and her family. When officers arrived at the scene, they witnessed Defendant intermittently exit the house unarmed and threaten to kill his girlfriend. Defendant returned inside and when he exited again later, once again unarmed, police took him into custody.

Upon securing Defendant, four (4) officers entered the residence to conduct a protective sweep. Defendant informed police that his 14-year-old brother, J. Lee Pritt, was in the house and that he was autistic. Officers proceeded to sweep the house when they quickly encountered Pritt. Deputy Costello escorted Pritt downstairs to the kitchen and attempted to calm him down. At that point, Deputy Bise asked Pritt if he know where the gun was. Pritt directed police to a pantry where a rifle was sitting in plain view. Police seized the firearm and finished the sweep of the house. They did not encounter anyone else. Defendant was indicted in a federal grand jury on one count of possession of a firearm after a felony conviction, in violation of 18 U.S. C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a). Defendant moved to suppress the firearm.

The District Court held that although the protective sweep was warranted, the exigent circumstances that initially justified the sweep ended the moment that Pritt was secured. Thus, the protective sweep should have ceased prior to the discovery and seizure of the weapon because the residence had been secured. Additionally, the police should not have asked Pritt about the gun.

The Government appealed the suppression to the Fourth Circuit. Defendant argued that the Government was attempting to use post hoc rationalizations to validate an otherwise unreasonable search. He claimed the Government was construing innocent facts in a suspicious manner to describe a dangerous situation and establish reasonable suspicion to sweep the house.

The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. CONST. amend IV. Searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumed to be unreasonable. Courts have acknowledged, however, several exceptions to this rule, one being the “protective sweep.” When police make an arrest at a home, if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that there is another individual in the house who poses a danger to those on the scene, police may conduct a sweep of the house. The sweep is to be a cursory inspection of only those places where a person could be found and should last no longer than is necessary to arrest the suspect and leave the house. The necessity for such a search is couched in the danger posed by the potentially unseen third parties inside the home.

The Fourth Circuit rejected the reasoning behind the District Court’s holding and the Defendant’s argument in finding that the facts, viewed objectively, describe a violent and quickly escalating situation necessitating a protective sweep of the entire house. Police witnessed Defendant threatening to kill his girlfriend and had received several reports of a firearm in the house. The officers had received conflicting statements about the number of people still on the premises. At the time the sweep began, they reasonably believed that there was at least one unknown individual and a firearm in the house. Although Defendant informed police that only Pritt was inside, they were not bound by Defendant’s statement. Given the conflicting reports and the volatile situation, the sweep did not have to cease at the moment Pritt was discovered.

Furthermore, it was not unreasonable for police to ask Pritt about the firearm. Upon permitting Pritt to remain in the home, it was reasonable that they would need to determine if he could safely be left alone. Pritt, a 14-year-old special needs child, was admittedly “freaking out” and “scared” and it is an officer’s “duty to look after the reasonable safety requirements of persons in their custody.”

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s order granting Defendant’s suppression motion. The Court held that the seizure of the firearm was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The case was remanded for further proceedings.


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