Ohio Appeals Court Rules Drug Evidence Found During Cause and Origin Admissible

The Eleventh Appellate District Court of Appeals of Ohio has ruled that drugs and drug paraphernalia found by a fire investigator during a cause and origin determination, is admissible. That decision reverses a trial court ruling that granted the property owner’s motion to suppress the evidence because it was obtained without a search warrant.

The decision is a good review of basic search and seizure law for fire investigators. The facts as explained by the Court of Appeals is as follows:

  • In February 2019, the Ashtabula Fire Department responded to a fire at [Nicole] Hommes’ residence.
  • Multiple children safely exited the home.
  • Captain Stephen Chase, a certified fire investigator, searched the house to determine the origin and cause of the fire.
  • Based on items discovered in and seized from the home, Hommes was indicted on charges of aggravated trafficking in drugs, aggravated possession of drugs, possessing criminal tools, illegal use or possession of drug paraphernalia, and endangering children.
  • She filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized from her residence by the fire and police departments, alleging they had violated her constitutional rights.
  • When extinguishing the fire, the suppression crew had breached a locked interior door to a room described as an office.
  • In that room, Captain Chase observed two computers connected to webcams pointed at the back door of the home, ammunition, airsoft pistols, and an open safe on the floor that appeared to contain illegal drugs and paraphernalia.
  • It was reported that a handgun had also been seized from that room by the fire suppression crew and turned over to a police officer.
  •  Captain Chase seized the two computers, which were then locked in evidence at the fire department.
  • Captain Chase testified that he has “had a number of trainings dealing with evidence collection,” but that it is “outside the scope of my training as a fire investigator to collect [drugs] as evidence”; “nor am I trained to collect weapons.”
  • He contacted the Ashtabula Police Department and requested an officer to respond.
  • At this time, the captain testified, he had not yet searched the entire house nor determined the cause and origin of the fire.
  • Captain Chase testified that Officer Thomas Perry, a patrolman at the time, “was there quickly,” within “five minutes, ten minutes.”
  • A warrant was not obtained for the seizure of evidence.
  • The trial court granted Hommes’ motion to suppress the evidence that was seized by the police department.
  • The court found that Captain Chase was authorized to enter the residence without a warrant to conduct an immediate investigation into the origin and cause of the fire; he was lawfully present, and the suspected illegal drugs and paraphernalia were in plain view; and, recognizing it was not his job to collect evidence of that nature, it was appropriate to report his observations to the police department.
  • The court concluded, however, that “[t]he facts in this case do not present exigent circumstances or any other basis that would trigger an exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant,” and therefore the police department was required to “take the information received from the firefighters to an impartial Magistrate for a determination of whether there is probable cause to issue a warrant for a search of the residence.”
  • The state of Ohio noticed this appeal, advancing one assignment of error: “The Trial Court erred in granting Appellee’s Motion to Suppress.”
  • The basic purpose of the Fourth Amendment “‘is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.'”
  • The suppression of evidence obtained as a result of a Fourth Amendment violation is essential to its protections.
  • “‘[S]earches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.'”
  • The doctrine of exigent circumstances is one such exception.
  • Additionally, the plain view doctrine permits the warrantless seizure of evidence if (1) the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the object could be plainly viewed; (2) the object’s incriminating character is “immediately apparent”; and (3) the officer has a lawful right of access to the object itself.
  • Fourth Amendment protections and the exceptions thereto extend to fire officials responding to an ongoing fire. Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499 (1978) (“there is no diminution in a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy nor in the protection of the Fourth Amendment simply because the official conducting the search wears the uniform of a firefighter rather than a policeman”).
  • Applying the doctrines of exigent circumstances and plain view, the United States Supreme Court held that “[a] burning building clearly presents an exigency of sufficient proportions to render a warrantless entry ‘reasonable[,]’ * * * [a]nd once in a building for this purpose, firefighters may seize evidence of arson that is in plain view.”
  • Further, “officials need no warrant to remain in a building for a reasonable time to investigate the cause of a blaze after it has been extinguished.”
  • Also in Tyler, the United States Supreme Court explained that “the exigency justifying a warrantless entry to fight a fire” does not end-and “the need to get a warrant” does not begin-“with the dousing of the last flame”: “this view of the firefighting function is unrealistically narrow.”
  • Prompt determination of the fire’s origin may be necessary to prevent its recurrence, as through the detection of continuing dangers such as faulty wiring or a defective furnace.
  • Immediate investigation may also be necessary to preserve evidence from intentional or accidental destruction.
  • And, of course, the sooner the officials complete their duties, the less will be their subsequent interference with the privacy and the recovery efforts of the victims.
  • And, finally, “if the warrantless entry to put out the fire and determine its cause is constitutional, the warrantless seizure of evidence while inspecting the premises for these purposes also is constitutional.”
  • Subsequently, the United States Supreme Court again held that “[t]heaftermath of a fire often presents exigencies that will not tolerate the delay necessary to obtain a warrant or to secure the owner’s consent to inspect fire-damaged premises.
  • Because determining the cause and origin of a fire serves a compelling public interest, the warrant requirement does not apply in such cases.” Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287 (1984). “Where, however, reasonable expectations of privacy remain in the fire-damaged property, additional investigations begun after the fire has been extinguished and fire and police officials have left the scene, generally must be made pursuant to a warrant or the identification of some new exigency.”
  • Here, applying these Fourth Amendment standards and exceptions, we conclude that Captain Chase was permitted to enter the residence without a warrant under the doctrine of exigent circumstances.
  • During the initial entry, while investigating and before he had determined the cause and origin of the fire, Captain Chase discovered contraband in plain view.
  • Due to limitations on his training with evidence collection, he acted appropriately in requesting assistance from the police department.
  • Patrolman Perry was permitted to enter the residence and seize the contraband without a warrant only because he “stepped into the shoes” of Captain Chase, who was still on the scene conducting his initial investigation.
  • Patrolman Perry entered solely for the purpose of assisting Captain Chase; he collected only the items to which he was directed by Captain Chase; he did not search any other area of the residence; and he did not further intrude on Hommes’ privacy interests.
  • Accordingly, the warrantless seizure did not violate Hommes’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Here is a copy of the decision.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
x

Check Also

California Sexual Predator Sting Nets Firefighter Driving Engine

A wildland firefighter with the US Forest Service has been arrested as part of sexual predator sting operation in central California. Mark McGill Jr. was arrested when he arrived in a Forest Service engine to what he thought was a rendezvous with a teenage girl in Fresno County.

Fire Law Roundup for November 7, 2022

In this episode of Fire Law Roundup for November 7, 2022, Brad ...