Arrest Warrant or Search Warrant Needed? Or Both?

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When seeking to apprehend a suspect at a third party’s home, officers need both an arrest warrant and a search warrant. On the other hand, if the suspect resides at the home, officers need only an arrest warrant and a “reason to believe” that the suspect is present at the time of the officers’ entry. That’s a bright line rule stated by the Supreme Court in Payton v. New York (445 U.S. 573 (1980)) and Steagald v. United States (451 U.S. 204 (1981)). However, lower courts disagree on just how certain officers must be that a suspect resides at and is present at a particular address before forcing entry into a private home. Some courts hold officers to a “probable cause” standard; others hold that the “reasonable belief” standard stated in Payton/Steagald is less demanding than probable cause.

Officers had an arrest warrant for Rivera, a suspect in a homicide case. Investigators received information from another law enforcement officer and from street informants that Rivera was “staying” or “residing” at an address on North 13th Street. The investigators went to the home, knocked on the door, and received no response. They “heard a lot of movement inside,” as well as a phone ring once or twice and stop ringing and a dog bark and cease barking. The officers believed that someone inside had manually silenced the phone and muzzled the dog. The officers then forcibly entered the home.

Once inside, the officers discovered that Rivera did not live there. However, they found Vasquez-Algarin, sandwich baggies, a razor blade and what appeared to be powder cocaine in plain view. Officers used this information to obtain a warrant to search Vasquez-Algarin’s home. During the search conducted pursuant to the warrant, officers discovered ammunition and drug paraphernalia.

Vasquez-Algarin was charged with distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He asked that the evidence be excluded, arguing that the officers did not have probable cause to believe Rivera (the murder suspect) resided at the home. The court agreed and vacated Vasquez-Algarin’s conviction.

The court held that “Payton’s ‘reason to believe’ language amounts to a probable cause standard.” Reaching this holding, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals joins the 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th circuits in similar rulings. Federal appellate courts in the District of Columbia, 1st, 2nd and 10th circuits have held that the Payton/Steagald “reasonable belief” standard requires less than probable cause. Some courts have opined that the Supreme Court hinted that it meant “probable cause” when it said “reasonable belief,” finding support in dicta in Maryland v. Buie (494 U.S. 325 (1990)).

One wonders whether the Court said what it meant and meant what it said. For now, we know that lower courts disagree and this is one issue likely to head to the United States Supreme Court. Until then, officers will do what we’ve always done: make the best possible call on less-than-perfect information.

United States v. Vasquez-Algarin, 2016 WL 1730540 (3rd Cir. 2016)

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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