Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart

547 U.S. 398

Case Year: 2006

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Roberts

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Alito, Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Scalia, Souter, Stevens, Thomas


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Stevens


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


At about 3:00 a.m. on July 23, 2000, four police officers responded to a complaint about a loud party. When the officers arrived at the house, they heard shouting from inside and walked down the driveway to investigate. As they approached they observed two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard. They also saw through a screen door and window an altercation taking place in the kitchen. Four adults were trying to restrain a teenager. When the young man broke loose, he punched one of the adults, who went to the sink to spit blood. The other three adults pushed the teen against the refrigerator with such force that it began moving across the floor. At that point, one of the officers opened the screen door and announced the police presence. The men in the house were so involved in the altercation that they did not respond. The officers then entered and again yelled at the individuals. Gradually the occupants realized the police were on the scene and the fighting ended.

The officers arrested Charles Stuart and the other adults for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, disorderly conduct, and intoxication. The defendants moved to suppress all the evidence gathered by police on the grounds that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court granted the motion, and a divided Utah Supreme Court affirmed.



In this case we consider whether police may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury. We conclude that they may. . . .

It is a " 'basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.' " Groh v. Ramirez (2004) (quoting Payton v. New York, (1980)). Nevertheless, because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is "reasonableness," the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions. We have held, for example, that law enforcement officers may make a warrantless entry onto private property to fight a fire and investigate its cause, Michigan v. Tyler (1978), to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence, Ker v. California (1963), or to engage in "hot pursuit" of a fleeing suspect, United States v. Santana (1976). "[W]arrants are generally required to search a person's home or his person unless 'the exigencies of the situation' make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Mincey v. Arizona (1978).

One exigency obviating the requirement of a warrant is the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. . . . Accordingly, law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.

Respondents do not take issue with these principles, but instead advance two reasons why the officers' entry here was unreasonable. First, they argue that the officers were more interested in making arrests than quelling violence. They urge us to consider, in assessing the reasonableness of the entry, whether the officers were "indeed motivated primarily by a desire to save lives and property." . . .

Our cases have repeatedly rejected this approach. An action is "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment, regardless of the individual officer's state of mind, "as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify [the] action." Scott v. United States (1978) (emphasis added). The officer's subjective motivation is irrelevant. It therefore does not matter here--even if their subjective motives could be so neatly unraveled--whether the officers entered the kitchen to arrest respondents and gather evidence against them or to assist the injured and prevent further violence. . . .

Respondents further contend that their conduct was not serious enough to justify the officers' intrusion into the home. They rely on Welsh v. Wisconsin (1984), in which we held that "an important factor to be considered when determining whether any exigency exists is the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made." This contention, too, is misplaced. Welsh involved a warrantless entry by officers to arrest a suspect for driving while intoxicated. There, the "only potential emergency" confronting the officers was the need to preserve evidence ( i.e., the suspect's blood-alcohol level)--an exigency that we held insufficient under the circumstances to justify entry into the suspect's home. Here, the officers were confronted with ongoing violence occurring within the home. Welsh did not address such a situation.

We think the officers' entry here was plainly reasonable under the circumstances. The officers were responding, at 3 o'clock in the morning, to complaints about a loud party. As they approached the house, they could hear from within "an altercation occurring, some kind of a fight." "It was loud and it was tumultuous." The officers heard "thumping and crashing" and people yelling "stop, stop" and "get off me." As the trial court found, "it was obvious that . . . knocking on the front door" would have been futile. The noise seemed to be coming from the back of the house; after looking in the front window and seeing nothing, the officers proceeded around back to investigate further. They found two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard. From there, they could see that a fracas was taking place inside the kitchen. A juvenile, fists clenched, was being held back by several adults. As the officers watch, he breaks free and strikes one of the adults in the face, sending the adult to the sink spitting blood.

In these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone "unconscious" or "semi-conscious" or worse before entering. The role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties; an officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided.

The manner of the officers' entry was also reasonable. After witnessing the punch, one of the officers opened the screen door and "yelled in police." When nobody heard him, he stepped into the kitchen and announced himself again. Only then did the tumult subside. The officer's announcement of his presence was at least equivalent to a knock on the screen door. Indeed, it was probably the only option that had even a chance of rising above the din. Under these circumstances, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment's knock-and-announce rule. Furthermore, once the announcement was made, the officers were free to enter; it would serve no purpose to require them to stand dumbly at the door awaiting a response while those within brawled on, oblivious to their presence.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Utah, and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


This is an odd flyspeck of a case. The charges that have been pending against respondents for the past six years are minor offenses--intoxication, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and disorderly conduct--two of which could have been proved by evidence that was gathered by the responding officers before they entered the home. The maximum punishment for these crimes ranges between 90 days and 6 months in jail. And the Court's unanimous opinion restating well-settled rules of federal law is so clearly persuasive that it is hard to imagine the outcome was ever in doubt. . . .

. . . I continue to believe "that a policy of judicial restraint--one that allows other decisional bodies to have the last word in legal interpretation until it is truly necessary for this Court to intervene--enables this Court to make its most effective contribution to our federal system of government." Michigan v. Long (1983) (Stevens, J., dissenting). Thus, while I join the Court's opinion, I remain persuaded that my vote to deny the State's petition for certiorari was correct.