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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > October 2012 > U.S. v. Harrison — Third Circuit Court of Appeals (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), August 7, 20

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U.S. v. Harrison — Third Circuit Court of Appeals (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), August 7, 2012

Question: If officers reasonably believe that a house is abandoned, is their warrantless entry justified even when the house is not actually abandoned?
Quick Answer: Yes, if the officers’ observations over time suggest that any expectation of privacy in the property was relinquished, then the officers’ mistake of fact is reasonable.
Facts: Philadelphia officers observed the house in this case several times, and the condition of the house never changed. The exterior was in a severe state of disrepair, and trash was strewn across the overgrown lawn. In addition, the windows on both levels were either boarded up or wide open, and the front door was left open. They also knew that the house was a drug den and would routinely enter it to kick out drug dealers and users. The interior matched the rundown condition of the exterior: There were no furnishings other than a single mattress on the top floor; human waste filled the bathtub and toilets; and there was no running water or electricity. In addition, officers said that they would routinely enter the house to kick out drug dealers and users. The event that gave rise to this case occurred when peace officers entered the house without a warrant because they believed it was abandoned. Inside, officers found defendant Khayree Harrison sitting in a chair with a gun, scales, pills, and cocaine on a table next to him. 
Why this case is important: If you reasonably believe that property is abandoned, you can enter without a warrant — even when there is an occupying homeowner. This case is exceptional because the officers observed the property in a dilapidated condition over the course of several months, and it appeared to be unoccupied the entire time.  
Keep in mind: The law often will excuse a factual mistake when it is based on a reasonable belief. The totality of the officers’ experience with the house reasonably suggested that it was abandoned.
Visit the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit website  to read the entire opinion.