The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coughlin, holding that police properly conducted a protective, warrantless sweep of Coughlin’s home following corroborated reports that he had fired an assault rifle multiple times in the home. The Superior Court found that the police conduct in this case involved the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless entry into a home.
The Facts of Coughlin
In August 2015, Philadelphia Police responded to a radio call indicating that multiple gun shots had been fired in the back yard of a residence in a high-crime area. The police peered into the back yard while perched upon a wall and saw a white male, Coughlin, and numerous shell casings on the ground. They did not see a gun, but they secured the defendant and asked him if anyone was inside the house. He gave them inconsistent answers, so they performed a “protective sweep” of the home to make sure that no one had been injured. They found and seized an assault rifle on the second floor.
The police arrested Coughlin, and the District Attorney’s Office charged him with a Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA Sec. 6106), possessing instruments of crime, and recklessly endangering another person. The VUFA charge was ultimately dismissed because VUFA 6106 requires either that a gun be concealed or located in a car and that the defendant not have a license. There is an exception to the VUFA 6106 statute which provides that a defendant may conceal a gun in his or her home. Here, the evidence showed that Coughlin lived in the house, so VUFA 6106 was not an appropriate charge.
Following the dismissal of the VUFA 6106 charge, Coughlin filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the gun, which would help his case with respect to the possessing instruments of crime and recklessly endangering another person charges. The trial court granted the motion to suppress. It concluded that police searched the home solely because they wanted to find the gun; not because they were looking for injured people in the house. The court therefore found that police should have obtained a warrant prior to entering the house.
The Superior Court Appeal
The Commonwealth appealed the suppression of the gun to the Superior Court, and the Superior Court reversed. The Superior Court noted that in general, police may not search a house without a warrant. However, there are a number of exceptions to this general requirement. Although the warrantless entry and search of a home is presumptively unreasonable and illegal, there is an exigent circumstances requirement which may justify such a search. Exigent circumstances exist where the police reasonably believe that someone within a residence is in need of immediate aid. There are a number of factors which courts typically look at when determining whether exigent circumstances exist:
The gravity of the offense,
Whether the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed,
Whether there is above and beyond a clear showing of probable cause,
Whether there is strong reason to believe that the suspect is within the premises being entered,
Whether there is a likelihood that the suspect will escape if not swiftly apprehended
Whether the entry was peaceable, and
The time of the entry (entry at night is disfavored).
These factors apply in the typical case, but in this case, the real inquiry was whether the police reasonably believed someone inside the residence was in need of immediate assistance.
The Emergency Aid Exception and the Superior Court’s Decision
The Superior Court ultimately concluded that police acted reasonably in entering the house. They did not need ironclad proof of a likely, serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception. Instead, they could err on the side of caution in this case given all of the circumstances. Here, the evidence showed that the defendant fired the gun multiple times in a neighborhood known for gun violence. The initial report suggested that he fired the gun in his back yard, but he also could have fired it in the home. When a witness flagged down the police, she told the police to be careful and described the defendant as acting crazy. Police corroborated the witness statement when they saw spent shells in the defendant’s backyard and by speaking with the defendant, who gave them inconsistent answers about whether anyone was inside. These inconsistent answers in particular suggested that maybe the defendant had a victim in the house who needed help. Therefore, under these circumstances, it was reasonably for police to confirm that he had not injured anyone by searching the house.
Ultimately, this case will likely be the subject of additional appeals as it conflicts with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Wilmer. For now, however, the case illustrates one of the rare circumstances in which police need not obtain a warrant prior to entering a residence. If police reasonably believe that someone inside may be in need of urgent assistance, then they may enter a house without a search warrant.
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