Question: Does a warrantless entry into a home make you civilly liable if you entered only because you thought someone might be in imminent danger?
Quick answer: Most likely, no, because you probably would have qualified immunity.
Facts: Vincent Huff allegedly threatened to “shoot up” his school. Vincent had been absent from school for two days and had been bullied by other classmates, so officers visited the Huffs’ home to speak with him. Officers repeatedly knocked and announced themselves, but no one came to the door. The officers also called the Huffs’ home phone, but no one answered. Finally, they called Vincent’s mother’s cell phone. She answered, but quickly hung up once officers asked to speak with her in person. Then, one or two minutes later, Mrs. Huff and Vincent walked out of the house and onto the front porch. She did not ask the officers why they wanted to talk to Vincent. They asked if they could speak to Vincent inside, but Mrs. Huff refused to let them in the house. Finding her behavior odd, one officer asked her if there were weapons in the home. She quickly ran into the house. Fearing someone might be in danger, the officers followed her inside. They were met by Vincent’s father, who challenged their authority to enter his home. The officers remained in the house 5 to 10 minutes and did not search the home or the occupants.
Why the case is important: The Supreme Court found that the officers’ entry was reasonable: The Fourth Amendment allows an officer to enter a home if the officer has a reasonable basis for believing there could be “an imminent threat of violence.” From Vincent’s alleged threat and Mrs. Huff’s odd behavior, the officers’ decision to enter the home without a warrant was reasonable, and they were protected by qualified immunity.
Keep in mind: You can follow your instincts when you think there is an immediate threat of violence, but only go as far as necessary to confirm the threat. Do not overstay your welcome. Even with the favorable outcome in Ryburn, a citizen’s privacy in her home is a fundamental right, so you should seek a warrant or consent to enter whenever possible. Consult legal counsel to help determine if you may be entitled to qualified immunity.
to read entire opinion.