By Ken Wallentine
Officers received a tip from a confidential informant that Belser was distributing heroin. The informant told police that he bought heroin from Belser at his home. The informant agreed to make a controlled buy. Officers monitored a phone call arranging for the drug deal. Belser told the informant to pick up the heroin at his house.
The officers fitted the informant with a transmitter. When the informant went into the house, the officers heard Belser call someone to deliver the drugs to him. They heard the sound of a firearm slide racking. After about 20 minutes, the officers heard what appeared to be the drug transaction.
The next sound heard on the wire was someone breathing deeply and gasping for air. The officers heard Belser yelling and slapping someone to wake up. They heard Belser shout, “Breathe don’t do this to me.” Believing that someone was in urgent distress, the officers forced entry into the house. They found the informant slumped over.
As medics worked to revive the informant, officers searched and found 25 packets of fentanyl in the informant’s pocket. The officers searched Belser and found the buy money. After conducting a protective sweep, the officers secured the house and obtained a search warrant.
Belser claimed that the entry was unlawful. He argued that the police created the exigency upon which they relied to make a warrantless entry. The prosecution countered that the officers’ entry was an objectively reasonable effort to render emergency aid to a drug overdose victim.
The exigent circumstances doctrine excuses warrantless compliance with the Fourth Amendment warrant clause in four general circumstances:
1. When an officer is in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon
2. When necessary to prevent imminent destruction of evidence
3. To prevent a suspect’s escape
4. In response to a risk of danger to the police or others. This last circumstance is often referred to as the “emergency aid doctrine.”
In Kentucky v. King (563 U.S. 452 (2011)), the Supreme Court limited the exigent circumstances rule where police create the very exigency used to justify warrantless entry: “Under this doctrine, police may not rely on the need to prevent destruction of evidence when that exigency was ‘created’ or ‘manufactured’ by the conduct of the police.”
Belser claimed that the proximate cause of the exigency was the officers’ decision to rely on an allegedly unreliable drug user with an outstanding arrest warrant as a confidential informant. The court disagreed, ruling that “proximate cause is not the test to determine if the police created the exigency.” The key question, the court noted, was whether the officers reasonably perceived a real risk of danger. Based on what the officers heard via the transmitter and the fact that only Belser and the informant were in the house, the court concluded a true emergency was evident and therefore the emergency aid doctrine excused the officers’ warrantless entry.
United States v. Belser, 2016 WL 6821990 (E.D. Mich. 2016)
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CHIEF KEN WALLENTINE is a Special Agent who directs the Utah Attorney General Training Center, overseeing use of force training and investigation and cold case homicide investigations. He is also a consultant and Senior Legal Advisor for Lexipol. Ken formerly served as Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General, serving over three decades in public safety before a brief retirement. He also serves as the Chairman of the Peace Officer Merit Commission of Greater Salt Lake County.