Question: Is a peace officer justified in conducting a warrantless protective sweep of a home after arresting a suspect inside the home?
Quick answer: Yes, if the officer reasonably believes another individual is inside the home and poses a danger to those on the scene.
Facts: Sheriff’s deputies drove to defendant Jordan Laudermilt’s home after his girlfriend called 911 to report domestic violence. The 911 calls reported that there were two additional people and a gun inside the home. When deputies arrived, they saw Laudermilt walk onto the front porch and heard him threaten to kill his girlfriend and her family with a gun. The deputies waited until Laudermilt walked out onto the front porch again and took him into custody. Then they conducted a protective sweep of the residence. Laudermilt told deputies that his 14-year-old autistic brother was in the house. A deputy found the brother in an upstairs bedroom, “shaking” and “freaking out.” The deputy took the brother into the kitchen of the home, and a sergeant asked the brother if he knew where the gun was. The brother pointed to a rifle hanging on a gun rack, in plain view. Meanwhile, the other deputies finished the protective sweep, which took five minutes. Laudermilt moved to suppress the gun recovered during the sweep.
Why this case is important: The court found that the deputies’ protective sweep was constitutionally justified. Typically, peace officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they enter and search a home without a warrant. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized an exception to this rule in Maryland v. Buie, a “protective sweep” that allows officers to make a cursory search of a home for individuals who might pose a danger to those on the scene. A Buie sweep is an extension of a Terry frisk for the home, so officers must have at least reasonable suspicion that a dangerous individual remains in the home. And the officers can look only in places where a person may be found.
Here, the deputies were justified in performing a sweep because (1) they were responding to a volatile situation involving a firearm and a domestic dispute; (2) the firearm was unaccounted for; and (3) they believed at least one other person was in the home. Even though Laudermilt told the deputies that his brother was the only other person left inside the home, officers are not bound by what the suspect tells them. Based on the 911 calls, there was some confusion about how many people were in the house, and the location of the firearm was unknown. For those reasons, the deputies were justified in conducting the sweep.
Keep in mind: When you make an arrest inside a home, you are entitled to perform a “protective sweep” of the home if you have specific, articulable facts that there may be a dangerous individual somewhere inside. But remember, a protective sweep is a limited search — it only entitles you to search those spaces where a person may be found. For instance, checking drawers and small containers is out of the question. Plus, the sweep should last no longer than it takes to dispel the reasonable suspicion of danger and/or make the arrest and leave the home.
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