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Wyoming Supreme Court: Fleeing Into Home After Traffic Offense Not Exigent Circumstance Justifying Warrantless Entry

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of Wyoming held that police lacked exigent circumstances required to justify warrantless entry to a suspect’s apartment where the suspect was fleeing arrest for a traffic offense.

Campbell County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Kellison attempted to pull over an SUV that he noticed had no visible registration while driving through downtown Gillette around 3 a.m. on March 20, 2019. The SUV instead sped up to around 40 mph, drove several blocks, and parked at a single-story apartment complex. The driver fled the vehicle and entered an apartment while Kellison shouted at him to stop. Kellison called for backup and then proceeded to question the passenger who was still in the SUV. She claimed not to know the driver who fled the vehicle.

After backup arrived, deputies verified the only other possible exit from the apartment was a back window. They surrounded the apartment and announced their intention to enter. They kicked in the front door and discovered Dillon Wayne Fuller inside.

Fuller had “slurred speech... [and] could not walk or stand without swaying or being helped by [the officers].” One officer found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in plain view. Fuller also smelled strongly of alcohol and burnt marijuana. Kellison subsequently obtained a warrant to search the apartment and also discovered a vape pen cartridge with THC oil.

Fuller was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance, felony DUI, misdemeanor fleeing from police, and misdemeanor interfering with a police officer. He filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained as result of officers breaching his home, on the grounds that they should have first obtained a warrant.

The trial court denied his motion on the grounds that officers had both probable cause, due to his unregistered vehicle—a traffic offense—and his flight from Kellison, and exigency because Kellison’s chase qualified as a “hot pursuit.”

Fuller pleaded guilty to the controlled substance and DUI counts and was sentenced to three to five years’ imprisonment. He timely appealed to the state’s supreme court, arguing that exigent circumstances didn’t exist to justify the warrantless entry into his home.

The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant for searches and seizures, and “searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980). However, warrantless entry into a home to arrest a suspect is valid if both probable cause and exigent circumstances exist. Id.; Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984) (without both probable cause and exigent circumstances, warrantless entry into home prohibited by the Fourth Amendment).

Exigent circumstances exist “when there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499 (1978). One such circumstance is the need to engage in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect. Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016). In order for a pursuit to be “hot,” there must be an emergency requiring immediate police action. Smith v. Stoneburner, 716 F.3d 926 (6th Cir. 2013). “Typically, hot pursuit involves a situation where a suspect commits a crime, flees and thereby exposes himself to the public, attempts to evade capture by entering a dwelling, and the emergency nature of the situation necessitates immediate police action to apprehend the suspect.” Cummings v. City of Akron, 418 F.3d 676 (6th Cir. 2005). Also, this pursuit must be “immediate or continuous ... from the scene of the crime.” Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984).

During the suppression hearing, the State conceded that the apartment was Fuller’s home, and Fuller conceded that officers had probable cause to arrest him. The only question was whether exigent circumstances justified warrantless entry of the home to affect the arrest.

The Wyoming Supreme Court noted that Kellison called for backup while securing the perimeter of the apartment, and between 8 and 13 minutes elapsed between Kellison’s call for backup and when they breached the home.

The Court said, “this ‘break’ rendered Deputy Kellison’s pursuit of Mr. Fuller neither ‘immediate’ nor ‘continuous’ from the scene of a crime. There was no ‘pursuit.’”

Further, the pursuit was not “hot.” The Court said, “[i]ndeed, by retreating into his apartment, any danger he posed to the community by driving without a visible registration and in excess of the speed limit had dissipated.”

The State argued that immediate entry of the home was also justified because evidence of Fuller’s DUI (his apparent drunkenness and odor of marijuana) was in danger of being destroyed. The Court rejected this argument because the only crime officers had knowledge of prior to entering the home was his driving without a proper registration, evidence of which could not be concealed in the apartment with the vehicle parked outside.

Also, in rare cases, probable cause alone could justify warrantless entry if it relates to a “serious offense,” which the Court has previously determined is any crime carrying a prison term. Rideout v. State, 122 P.3d 201 (Wyo. 2005). However, the Court deferred to the trial court’s decision to classify Fuller’s registration offense “minor” because it was a non-violent misdemeanor.

The Court ruled “there was no compelling need requiring immediate police action” to justify warrantless entry of Fuller’s home.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s denial of Fuller’s motion to suppress and remanded the case. See: Fuller v. State, 481 P.3d 1131 (Wyo. 2021). 

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Fuller v. State

 

 

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