In Ryburn v. Huff, 132 S.Ct. 987 (2012), the Court held that, based on the existing state of the law, a reasonable police officer may conclude that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer “to enter a residence if the officer has a reasonable basis for concluding that there is an imminent threat of violence.”
The Case: In Burbank, California, several police officers responded to a call from the local high school regarding threats made by Vincent Huff, a student. Upon their arrival, Sergeant Darin Ryburn and Officer Edmundo Zepeda were told by the school’s principal that Huff “was rumored to have written a letter threatening to ‘shoot up’ the school. The principal expressed concern for the safety of her students and requested that the officers investigate the threat.”
“The officers’ investigation revealed that Vincent had been absent from school for two days and that he was frequently subjected to bullying. The officers additionally learned that one of Vincent’s classmates believed that Vincent was capable of carrying out the alleged threat. The officers found Vincent’s absences from school and his history of being subjected to bullying as cause for concern. The officers had received training on targeted school violence and were aware that these characteristics are common among perpetrators of school shootings.”
The next step was to interview Vincent. “When the officers arrived at Vincent’s house, Officer Zepeda knocked on the door and announced several times that the officers were with the Burbank Police Department. No one answered the door or otherwise responded to Officer Zepeda’s knocks. Sergeant Ryburn then called the home telephone. The officers could hear the phone ringing inside the house, but no one answered.”
“Sergeant Ryburn next tried calling the cell phone of Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Huff. When Mrs. Huff answered the phone, Sergeant Ryburn identified himself and inquired about her location. Mrs. Huff informed Sergeant Ryburn that she was inside the house. Sergeant Ryburn then inquired about Vincent’s location, and Mrs. Huff informed him that Vincent was inside with her. Sergeant Ryburn told Mrs. Huff that he and the other officers were outside and requested to speak with her, but Mrs. Huff hung up the phone.”
“One or two minutes later, Mrs. Huff and Vincent walked out of the house and stood on the front steps. Officer Zepeda advised Vincent that he and the other officers were there to discuss the threats. Vincent, apparently aware of the rumor that was circulating at his school, responded, ‘I can’t believe you’re here for that.’ Sergeant Ryburn asked Mrs. Huff if they could continue the discussion inside the house, but she refused. In Sergeant Ryburn’s experience as a juvenile bureau sergeant, it was ‘extremely unusual’ for a parent to decline an officer’s request to interview a juvenile inside. Sergeant Ryburn also found it odd that Mrs. Huff never asked the officers the reason for their visit.”
The sergeant then asked Mrs. Huff if there were any guns in the house. Mrs. Huff responded by immediately turning around and running into the house. This caused the sergeant great concern, because he “didn’t know what was in that house” and had “seen too many officers killed.” Consequently, the sergeant entered the home, followed by Vincent and Officer Zepeda. The two remaining officers, who had been standing out of earshot while Sergeant Ryburn and Officer Zepeda talked to Vincent and Mrs. Huff, entered the house last, “on the assumption that Mrs. Huff had given Sergeant Ryburn and Officer Zepeda permission to enter.”
“Upon entering the house, the officers remained in the living room with Mrs. Huff and Vincent. Eventually, Vincent’s father entered the room and challenged the officers’ authority to be there. The officers remained inside the house for a total of five to ten minutes. During that time, the officers talked to Mr. Huff and Vincent. They did not conduct a search of Mr. Huff, Mrs. Huff, or Vincent, or any of their property. The officers ultimately concluded that the rumor about Vincent was false and they reported their conclusion to the school.”
Based on these events, the Huffs sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. §1983, arguing that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a warrant. The District Court ruled that the officers were “entitled to qualified immunity because Mrs. Huff’s odd behavior, combined with the information the officers gathered at the school, could have led reasonable officers to believe ‘that there could be weapons inside the house, and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger.’ The District Court noted that ‘[w]ithin a very short period of time, the officers were confronted with facts and circumstances giving rise to grave concern about the nature of the danger they were confronting.’ With respect to this kind of ‘rapidly evolving incident,’ the District Court explained, courts should be especially reluctant ‘to fault the police for not obtaining a warrant.’ “ The United States Supreme Court agreed.
The Law: In Brigham City v. Stuart, 126 S.Ct. 1943 (2006), the Court held that “officers may enter a residence without a warrant when they have ‘an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is imminently threatened with [serious injury].’ “ There, the Court explained that “[t]he need to protect or preserve life or avoid seriousinjury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.” Similarly, in Georgia v. Randolph, 126 S.Ct. 1515 (2006), the Court pointed out that “it would be silly to suggest that the police would commit a tort by entering [a residence] . . . to determine whether violence is about to [or soon will] occur.”
Here, in Ryburn, the Court held that “[a] reasonable police officer could read these decisions to mean that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to enter a residence if the officer has a reasonable basis for concluding that there is an imminent threat of violence. As explained by the District Court:
“[T]he officers testified that a number of factors led them to be concerned for their own safety and for the safety of other persons in the residence: the unusual behavior of the parents in not answering the door or the telephone; the fact that Mrs. Huff did not inquire about the reason for their visit or express concern that they were investigating her son; the fact that she hung up the telephone on the officer; the fact that she refused to tell them whether there were guns in the house; and finally, the fact that she ran back into the house while being questioned. That behavior, combined with the information obtained at the school – that Vincent was a student who was a victim of bullying, who had been absent from school for two days, and who had threatened to ‘shoot up’ the school – led the officers to believe that there could be weapons inside the house and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger.”
“Judged from the proper perspective of a reasonable officer forced to make a split second decision in response to a rapidly unfolding chain of events that culminated with Mrs. Huff turning and running into the house after refusing to answer a question about guns, [the officers’] belief that entry was necessary to avoid injury to themselves or others was imminently reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.
About the Author: Larry E. Holtz is the C.E.O. and Executive Director of Police Training for Holtz Learning Centers, Ltd. He has served as a Detective Sergeant with the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Police Department; a Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey; and an Assistant County Prosecutor. Mr. Holtz is a certified police trainer and teaches on a regular basis in police training academies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
He is a member of the bar in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, and is admitted to practice before the federal bar in the District of New Jersey and the Third Circuit.