Who “Owns” the Death Scene?

by | June 19, 2024

United States v. Elmore, 2024 WL 2281077 (10th Cir. 2024)

Ask any officer to tell you who controls the location of a serious crime or a suspicious death and the officer will almost certainly respond that the police “own” the scene for purposes of the investigation. But is that the law?

Earlier in my career, a more experienced officer explained to me that the “murder scene” exception applied to a particular case. On another occasion, a colleague suggested that the “crime scene” exception would work in a case I was working on.

Supreme Court precedent is pretty clear on both of those suggestions: There is no exception to the Fourth Amendment rules for murder scenes or the locations of other serious crimes (Flippo v. West Virginia, 528 U.S. 11 (1999)). In almost any situation, officers must have a warrant to search a home unless consent or a well-established exception to the Fourth Amendment applies. The Supreme Court has spoken clearly and often about the sanctity of the home under the Fourth Amendment (see Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014); Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006)). In certain circumstances, the exigency exception may apply “when an emergency leaves police insufficient time to seek a warrant” (see Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S. 438 (2016); Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011)).

In Illinois v. McArthur (531 U.S. 326 (2001)), the Supreme Court upheld a search that involved one officer preventing the occupant from entering his home (and potentially destroying evidence) while a second officer spent about two hours obtaining a search warrant. The Supreme Court cited four factors that supported the reasonableness of the officers’ seizure of the home. First, the officers “had probable cause to believe that the home contained evidence of a crime.” Second, there was “good reason to fear the destruction of that evidence before the warrant’s arrival.” Third, the officers “made reasonable efforts to reconcile” law enforcement needs with personal privacy demands. Fourth, the warrantless seizure of the home lasted “no longer than reasonably necessary for the police, acting with diligence, to obtain the warrant.” Consider those factors in how you might approach the following case or similar circumstances that you might encounter.

Corban Elmore’s teenage son suffered a drug overdose at Elmore’s home. The father and a neighbor called 911 and attempted CPR. By the time an officer responded, Elmore and the neighbor had carried the boy out of the house and onto the sidewalk. The officer administered naloxone and Elmore’s son began breathing again, though he remained unresponsive.

When an ambulance arrived, an EMT asked Elmore if he knew what drugs his son had taken. Elmore led the EMT to his son’s bedroom and gestured toward an open metal box lying on the bed. The box contained vials of various drugs and drug paraphernalia. The EMT took the box as the ambulance crew transported the boy to a hospital, which was about an hour away. Elmore followed the ambulance in a separate vehicle.

A detective ordered two officers to secure the Elmore home and bar anyone from entering. Arriving at the hospital, the detective met Elmore, who was on his way home and planned to meet the detective there. A short time later, Elmore’s wife arrived home with their young child. She had just been discharged from a three-day hospital stay and repeatedly asked to enter the house, but the officers refused to let her. The officers told her the house was a “crime scene” and they were “conducting an investigation.” When she asked what evidence they were searching for, the detective said that he needed to look for “whatever else might be in there drug[-]related.” Explaining there were several pets inside the home that needed care, Elmore’s wife said she would consent to a search of her son’s bedroom.

Elmore arrived to find he could not enter his home because it was a “possible crime scene.” He suggested the officers could search his son’s bedroom if it meant his family could access the rest of the home, and he reiterated that several pets were stuck inside. The officers steadfastly refused to allow anyone to enter.

Meanwhile, at the sheriff’s office, the detective ran a criminal history check on Elmore and discovered he had four felony convictions. Eight hours after securing Elmore’s house, the detective requested a warrant to search Elmore’s house and truck for drugs and guns. The warrant affidavit specified that an officer had seen a gun safe inside the home, that Elmore’s truck might contain a firearm, and that Elmore had prior felony convictions. Sure enough, officers found two firearms in Elmore’s bedroom.

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Elmore was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He asked the trial court to suppress the firearms, arguing in part that the eight-hour seizure of his home violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied Elmore’s motion, ruling there was probable cause to believe the home contained evidence of drug possession and the officers had cause to fear that evidence would be destroyed before they could secure a search warrant.

The court of appeals disagreed, saying the eight-hour seizure of Elmore’s home was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and the firearm evidence must be suppressed. The appellate court assumed probable cause and exigency justified the initial seizure of Elmore’s home, but found that the officers made no effort to reconcile their law-enforcement needs with Elmore’s Fourth Amendment interests in his home. Noting that the officers refused to allow Elmore or his injured wife to enter their home even with police supervision, the court  stated it could not “discern any law-enforcement interest that justified this encroachment on Elmore’s Fourth Amendment interests in his home. Because the officers made no effort, much less a reasonable effort, to strike a sound balance between those competing interests, this factor weighs heavily against the government.”

Another big factor also turned against the prosecution. The court held the officers extended the seizure longer than reasonably necessary to diligently secure a warrant. The detective “spent hours digging into the details surrounding the overdose event and investigating Elmore for criminal conduct.” In the court’s view, this extended the seizure much longer than reasonably necessary to obtain the warrant. “We conclude,” the appellate court said, “that the seizure in this case violated the Fourth Amendment.” Holding that the exclusionary rule applied, the court of appeals directed the trial court to suppress the evidence seized during the warrant execution.

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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