Your House is Burning — Can the Fire Department Turn You In for Drugs and Guns in the House?

4th Amendment

You may have constitutional protections in your house but the exigency of the circumstance gives constitutional permission to the first responders to enter your home.  Once the fire is extinguished, fire fighters are required to conduct an “administrative sweep” to confirm there is no other fire or danger.  During fire fighting or during the sweep, responders are entitled to seize criminal evidence in plain view or notify police.

In James Young a/k/a James Marquez Young v. State of Florida, Young’s house was on fire and, while entering through the garage, fire fighters and police both saw drug paraphernalia.  After the fire, during the administrative sweep, a fire fighter spotted marijuana in an open cooler in a closet where the fire had been burning.  After what later was deemed an involuntary consent, law enforcement found guns and cash during a warrantless search.  The Defendant sought to suppress, lost, and now appeals.  The question is admissibility.

The court broke down the issues in a method any law student or bar examiner would find familiar.  First, as to the paraphernalia in plain view in the garage, that was properly admitted.  Second, as to the weed spotted during the sweep, that too was admissible.  The court concluded, however, that the guns and money, which were not in plain view, were obtained improperly without a warrant; the “inevitable discovery” exception does not apply when police have a legally sufficient basis to get a warrant but take no such action.  This is a relatively new twist, arising from Rodriguez v. State of Florida (2015), where the Florida Supreme Court held that “permitting warrantless searches without the prosecution demonstrating that the police were in pursuit of a warrant is not a proper application of the inevitable discovery rule.”  Likewise, there was no exigency since the occupants of the house were (again, at the time, unlawfully) detained.

Photo credit: News Advocate (demonstrative purposes only, it’s not the same fire)

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