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Searches Of Closed Containers Within A Home: Where No Exigent Circumstances Exist, Police Must Obtain Warrant To Search Closed Container Within The Home


criminal appeals lawyer, exigent circumstances, warrantless entry, fourth amendment, emergency doctrine

People v. Jenkins

2014 N Y Slip OP 07007

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: October 16, 2014

Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer 

Issue: Whether a police officer’s warrantless search of a closed metal box in Defendant’s home was reasonable under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

Summary:  Police arrived at an apartment building after hearing gunshots. Upon entering a hallway, they noticed Defendant holding a gun. When Defendant became aware of the police, he ran into an apartment. The Police broke down the door. The officers searched the apartment and found Defendant and his cohort hiding under a bed. The officers frisked and secured them.

The Police then searched the apartment and found a metal box.  They shook the box, and, upon hearing a sound, opened it and discovered a gun. At a pre-trial suppression hearing, the trial court found that the warrantless search of the apartment was proper, however, once Defendant was handcuffed and secured, the emergency had stopped. Therefore, the warrantless search of the box was improper.

The Appellate Division reversed and held that exigent circumstances justified the officer’s entry into the apartment and that the observation of Defendant holding a gun, justified the warrantless search for the gun. The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s conclusion that exigent circumstances justified the search of the closed box because, by the time the Officer opened the box, any urgency justifying the warrantless search had abated.

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Holding: The Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances did not exist to justify the warrantless entry into a closed metal box in Defendant’s home.

The Court of Appeals held that the search was unreasonable as a matter of law because by the time the officer opened the box, any urgency justifying the warrantless search had stopped.

The exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement dictates that police may act without a warrant where they possess probable cause to search but urgent events make it impossible to obtain a warrant in sufficient time to preserve evidence or contraband threatened with removal or destruction.

Facts: Police entered into an apartment building after hearing gunshots. When they entered in the hallway, they observed Defendant holding a gun; he then ran into an apartment. The officers broke down the door. Upon entering, they observed two women in the living room, who denied that anyone had entered the apartment.

The officers searched the apartment and located Defendant and his cohort hiding under a bed. Officer Brennon and another officer removed the men, frisked them, placed them in handcuffs, and joined them with the two women in the living room.

Officer Brennon then searched for the gun, without success. However, he found a box, shook it, opened it, and discovered a gun. He returned to the living room and placed Defendant under arrest.

At a pre- trial suppression hearing, the People argued that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search of the box. The court concluded that the warrantless entry into the apartment was proper, but that once Defendant was handcuffed and secured, the exigency had abated and the warrantless search of the box was improper.

The Appellate Division reversed, concluding the same exigent circumstances that justified the officers’ entry into the apartment–the gunfire and the Defendant in plain-view holding a gun–justified the warrantless search for the gun. The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s conclusion that exigent circumstances justified the search of the closed box because, by the time the Officer opened the box, any urgency justifying the warrantless search had abated.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that subject to narrow exceptions, a warrantless search of an individual’s home is per se unreasonable and unconstitutional. People v. Knapp, 52, NY2d 689, 694 (1981). One exception, commonly referred to as the exigent circumstances exception, dictates that police may act without a warrant where they possess probable cause to search but urgent events make it impossible to obtain a warrant in sufficient time to preserve evidence or contraband threatened with removal or destruction.

Here, the Court of Appeals held that when police arrived at Defendant’s apartment, the officers handcuffed the men and moved them into the living room where they remained under police supervision.

By the time one of the officers searched the box and discovered the gun, the police were in complete control of the house. At that point, there was no danger that Defendant would dispose of or destroy the weapon. Absent the presence of any other exception to the warrant requirement, such as a search incident to arrest or the gun being in plain view, the police were required to obtain a warrant prior to searching the box. Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed and Defendant’s motion to suppress the physical evidence granted.


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