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Hawai’i Supreme Court Holds Randomness and Violent Nature of Crime Alone Insufficient to Establish Exigent Circumstances for Warrantless Entry Into Suspect’s Home

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of Hawai’i ruled that the apparent randomness and violent nature of the offense for which a suspect was being investigated is insufficient to justify the warrantless entry of his home under the exigent circumstances exception, even though there was probable cause to arrest him.

The Honolulu Police Department (“HPD”) was investigating a brutal, seemingly unprovoked stabbing of a teenage girl at the Kahala area beach, when one of the officers reviewing security camera footage believed he recognized the suspect, Erik Willis, as someone he had previously mentored.

After surveilling Willis for a day and a half, the HPD made a warrantless entry into his home to arrest him. Once he was secured, “the police happened to see shoes and a shirt that matched the suspect’s footwear and upper garment.” Willis also made statements, while detained in his home, that linked him to the shirt in question.

After a grand jury indicted Willis, he “moved to suppress the shoes, the shirt, and the statements he made when he was arrested,” on the ground that officers should have obtained a warrant to enter his home to arrest him. He acknowledged that police had probable cause to arrest him, but there weren’t exigent circumstances justifying the police’s entry into his home to do so without a warrant or consent.

The Circuit Court granted his motion after finding the police lacked any exigent circumstances that would justify the warrantless entry, noting there was “no evidence [that Willis] was armed, or that he was actively attempting to flee the jurisdiction.”

Because the police were not legally present in Willis’ home, they could not legally observe the shirt and shoes under the plain view doctrine nor arrest him. Consequently, the court suppressed his statements and clothing.

The State appealed, arguing that the nature of the crime for which Willis was wanted justified the exigency exception to the warrant requirement. Its argument was that a “random, unprovoked stabbing of a woman lying on the beach” presents “a different risk” because he “might attack again randomly,” and thus, according to the State, “[the police] couldn’t devote the six or more hours they said they needed to write an affidavit and then get a warrant.”

The Court observed that the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 7 of the Hawai’i Constitution match one another, except that the state Constitution also protects against unreasonable “invasions of privacy.” Haw. Const. art. I, § 7. It added that “the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). The Court also cited Payton v. New York, 445 US 573 (1980), in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.”

While police can arrest anyone in a public space with mere probable cause for either a felony or misdemeanor, they must possess a warrant or obtain consent to enter a dwelling to effect an arrest. See Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001); United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411 (1976). However, entering a dwelling to make an arrest requires a warrant, unless a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies. Lange v. California, 141 S. Ct. 2011 (2021).  Police warrantless entry into a dwelling is “presumptively unreasonable.” Payton.  

The Hawai’i Supreme Court has instructed that police entry into a home without a warrant or consent “can only be justified under the exigent circumstances exceptions to the warrant requirement.” State v. Line, 214 P.3d 613 (Haw. 2009). The Line Court made it clear that there must be both probable cause and exigent circumstances. The state Supreme Court further clarified that “no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless search or seizure absent exigent circumstances…” State v. Bonnell, 856 P.2d 1265 (Haw. 1993).

The Court explained that exigent circumstances emerge “where there is an imminent threat of harm to a person, where there is danger of serious property damage, where a suspect is likely to escape, or where evidence is likely to be removed or destroyed.” State v. Naeole, 470 P.3d 1120 (Haw. 2020). That is, such situations are exigent because they are “now or never” situations for police with “no time to secure a warrant.” Lange. Importantly, the exigency must exist at the time of the warrantless search or seizure, not arise afterwards. See State v. Dorson, 615 P.2d 740 (Haw. 1980). The State bears the burden of proving exigency by identifying “specific and articulable facts” establishing why the police had to act immediately. State v. Pulse, 925 P.2d 797 (Haw. 1996).

The Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the argument that the nature of the offense under investigation itself can establish exigent circumstances. See Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984) (“courts have permitted warrantless home arrests for major felonies if identifiable exigencies, independent of the gravity of the offense, existed at the time of the arrest.”); Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978) (declining “to hold that the seriousness of the offense under investigation itself creates exigent circumstances of the kind that under the Fourth Amendment justify a warrantless search”).

In rejecting the State’s position that the nature of the crime under investigation itself can give rise to exigent circumstances, the Court stated if that were the rule  “all stranger-danger” and violent assault cases would satisfy the exigency exception and concluded that such an “expansive reach … dooms” the State’s position. Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021) (U.S. Supreme Court “has repeatedly declined to expand the scope of exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home”).

Thus, the Court held that “the gravity of the underlying crime, by itself, cannot supply exigent circumstances validating warrantless home intrusions.”

The Court then concluded that there is nothing in the record to demonstrate that Willis posed a threat to the public at the time of his arrest. It pointed out that the police had been watching Willis for more than a day before deciding to make a warrantless arrest in his home, and there were “no additional facts” suggesting Willis was “armed and dangerous” or attempting to flee. Therefore, the Court ruled that the police didn’t  “face a now or never situation,” and so the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement doesn’t apply to the police’s warrantless entry into Willis’ home to arrest him.

Because police were not lawfully in the location where they observed the shoes and shirt, the plain view doctrine doesn’t validate their seizure, the Court stated. See State v. Meyer, 893 P.2d 159 (Haw. 1995). Similarly, the Court concluded that Willis’ statements were obtained as a result of the police’s unlawful intrusion. Thus, the Court ruled that the exclusionary rule bars the use of all evidence obtained within Willis’ home.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order granting Willis’ motion to suppress. See: State v. Willis, 500 P.3d 420 (Haw. 2021). 

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Related legal case

State v. Willis



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