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Do Exigent Circumstances Exist if Police Find Rifle?

In the context of a criminal case, the Fourth Amendment requires that police make no search or seizure without a warrant of any place that defendant has a reasonable expectation of privacy.  There are many exceptions to the warrant requirement, one being that if police are confronted with an exigent circumstance, i.e., an emergency situation wherein police must act quickly and cannot wait for a magistrate or judge to approve a warrant, police can search a home, for example, without a warrant.

Sometimes, police act so quickly without a warrant that they injure a defendant and use excessive force, allowing the criminal defendant to act as a civil plaintiff and sue the county or city police for violation of his or her federal civil rights under 28 U.S.C. § 1983.  The following summary explains such a civil case.
Brief Synopsis: A report from a 911 caller that a person, who is a convicted felon, has a firearm does not create an exigent circumstance sufficient to search a home without a warrant.  Instead, the police can and must obtain a search warrant before searching the suspect’s home.
Michael Vern Murchison sued the County of Tehama under 28 U.S.C. § 1983 for injuries he received when police searched his home and arrested him.  The case arose when a real estate agent reported that Mr. Murchison had brandished a firearm at him when he and his client drove past Murchison’s home looking for property near Red Bluff, California. 

The police took the report and looked into Murchison’s criminal history, finding that he was a convicted felon who was prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm.  Sergeant Richard Knox and Deputy Jeff Garrett never spoke to the real estate agent or his client, but were assigned to investigate the matter.

Knox and Garrett dressed in plain clothes and drove an unmarked SUV to Murchison’s property, which was alongside a road roped off to prevent cars from driving on it.  There was a “Road Closed” sign.  Knox and Garrett got out of their SUV toward the “Road Closed” sign when Murchison came out on his home’s porch and told the two plain clothes officers that the road was closed and that they would be trespassing if they proceeded.

Garrett then walked back to his SUV and Murchison went back inside his house.  Garrett then stepped over the rope and walked onto Murchison’s property.  Murchison then took a pencil and paper and recorded the license plate number of the SUV.

Garrett then observed a bolt-action rifle on the top of a bench in Murchison’s garage area. 

Without a warrant, Garrett and Knox then decided to look at the rifle more closely.  Murchison, while talking to the 911 operator to report trespassers, saw Knox “walking very quickly” toward the rifle.  Knox did not identify himself as law enforcement.  Murchison, age 60, believed he was being robbed at this point and began running toward the rifle.

Once Knox saw Murchison running toward the rifle, both he and Garrett started running toward the rifle, too.  Knox and Garrett later testified that as they neared the rifle, they saw what they believed was ammunition alongside it, which they believed Murchison could load and then fire the weapon at them.

Knox got to the rifle first, but ran past it.  He then ran around a corner of the building, pulled out his police gun and, as Murchison reached a spot almost at the rifle, Knox pointed his gun at Murchison from a distance of eight or nine inches, yelling “Sheriff’s Office, get to the fucking ground, asshole.”  Murchison stopped, then took a step or two back, looking at Knox.  Garrett then tackled Murchison from behind to the ground.  Either Knox or Garrett shoved Murchison’s face into the ground and handcuffed him. 

According to Murchison, he never realized the two men were law enforcement until he was handcuffed.  According to Murchison, he did not hear Knox say he was with the Sheriff’s office. 

Knox and Garrett told him that he was being arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm.  Murchison responded that he had the conviction expunged, so he was allowed to possess guns (please note, expungement does not restore one’s rights to own, purchase or possess firearms or ammunition (Penal Code 1203.4(a)(2)).  The officers then called to the station and confirmed that Murchison’s conviction had been expunged.  Once they confirmed this, they removed Murchison’s handcuffs and left.

Murchison then sued the individual officers and Tehama County for excessive force under 28 U.S.C. § 1983.  The county and the individual officers moved for summary judgment, arguing that their entry onto Murchison’s property was excused by exigent circumstances and that their use of force was reasonable and to the extent that they committed any constitutional violations, they were entitled to qualified governmental immunity.  The judge granted the motion in its entirety.  This would mean the case against the Sheriffs and the officers would be dismissed.

However, Murchison appealed to the Third Appellate District Court in Sacramento.  The Third Appellate District reversed, finding that there was no exigency that required the officers to immediately enter the property quickly without first getting a warrant.  They did not need to enter the property to protect themselves from serious harm.  Instead, they created the emergency.  They certainly could have turned around, gone back to the station, prepared an affidavit in support of a search warrant and secured a warrant.  However, they walked onto the property without identifying themselves, causing Murchison to believe he was being robbed and leading to the excessive force. 

The order granting summary judgment was therefore reversed and the case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

The citation for the Third Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is Michael Vern Murchison v. County of Tehama (3d App. Dist., 2021) 69 Cal. App. 867, 284 5th Cal. Rptr. 3d 742.

For more information about other search warrant exceptions, please click on the following articles:
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