January 6, 2006

Justices to clarify emergency police home entry

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on
Friday to clarify what constitutes an emergency justifying
police entry into a home without a warrant, in a Utah case
involving officers who went into a house to stop a fight.

The high court said it would hear an appeal by Utah
authorities arguing that entering the house did not violate the
constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and
seizures of evidence.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said in the appeal,
which was supported by 16 other states, that the issues
presented by the case were important and recurring.

Four police officers were dispatched to a house in Brigham
City, Utah, at 3 a.m. on July 23, 2000, in response to a
complaint about a loud party.

They went to the back of the house to investigate the noise
and entered the backyard, obtaining a clear view into the house
through a screen door and two windows.

The officers saw several adults restraining a juvenile, who
then broke free and struck one of the adults in the face with
his fist.

Two officers opened the screen door, entered the kitchen
and yelled "police." The altercation then stopped and the
occupants became angry that the police had entered their house
without permission.

The officers arrested the adults for disorderly conduct,
intoxication and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The defendants, Charles Stuart and Shayne and Sandra
Taylor, moved to suppress the evidence of alcohol consumption
found inside the home and argued that the officers' entry
violated their constitutional rights.

A trial judge agreed and ruled the officers should have
knocked on the door before entering. An appeals court upheld
the decision and said there was no evidence the altercation
posed an immediate serious threat or a threat of escalating

The Utah Supreme Court also ruled that the police entry
without a warrant was not justified under the exceptions
governing "emergency aid" or "exigent circumstances."

The justices will hear arguments in the case most likely at
the end of April, with a decision expected by the end of June.
The court also agreed to decide a number of other cases,

-- whether a criminal defendant's conviction must be
overturned automatically because he was denied his right to be
represented at trial by the counsel of his choice.

-- whether the winners in lawsuits brought under the
federal law governing special education programs for disabled
students can collect not only attorneys' fees, but also fees
for the hiring of experts.