The United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court opinion that Deputy J.A. Wood of the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Department and a step-parent listed as William W. Blessard; violated the Fourth Amendment constitutional rights of Mark J. and Cheryl A. Hunsberger of the Cloverdale area of Botetourt County. The case was argued on May 15, 2009 in front of appeals court Judges Wilkinson, Traxler and Beam. All three judges agreed in the opinion written by Wilkinson and decided on June 29.
In the case brought before Judge Samuel G. Wilson of the US Western District Court in 2008, Wilson had ruled Wood did not have cause to search the Hunsberger home and denied summary judgment. Attorneys for the Hunsburgers are Terry Grimes and Melvin Williams of Roanoke. Wood’s attorney, Elizabeth Dillon, appealed the ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case began on February 2 and 3, 2007 at 10:17 p.m. when a neighbor of the Hunsburgers called the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office for a possible breaking and entering going on at the Hunsburger home in the Steeplechase subdivision. The department responded to that call and could not get anyone to answer the door. Later that evening, cites the opinion released today, the 18-year-old son, Zach Hunsberger and one of his friends left the home and went to buy beer. The neighbor once again called 911 at 12:10 a.m. when the boys and an underage guest, the stepdaughter of Blessard, parked cars in the street in front of the house. After that call, Wood called in the tags to get ownership of the vehicles parked out front. Blessard thought his stepdaughter was spending the night with another friend and came to the scene upset that his stepdaughter could not be located.
In the ensuing minutes after ringing the door bell 25-30 times, according to the opinion, Blessard and Wood entered the home through a previously closed door to the garage. After surveying the garage and lower floors and finding opened beer cans in the basement, Wood and Blessard entered the upstairs where they found another underage Hunsburger son in a closet. They entered another bedroom occupied by the young daughter of the Hunsburger family, who was awakened by the deputy and stepparent of the missing girl. The suit claimed she was frightened by the deputy shining a light at her and pulling covers from her face to ask Blessard if that was his stepdaughter. The elder Hunsburgers awakened and took Deputy Wood to task for entering the home and called 911 themselves. Later that night, Cheryl Hunsburger returned the underage girl to her home when the girl came out of hiding in the basement of the house.
In response to the lawsuit, Deputy Wood’s attorney Dillon had argued that he had answered the call with the claim that the entry into the house was constitutional and even if it were not, he was entitled to qualified immunity because he violated no bright-line constitutional rule. The district federal court had decided that Wood’s entry into the home was not justified by an emergency, and was therefore unreasonable and further determined that the constitutional right was clearly established. Accordingly the opinion read that the summary judgment on Wood’s behalf was denied.
The latest round has overturned that ruling. In respect to the Fourth Amendment, the appeals court ruled that a police officer can perform a search without a warrant while performing “community caretaking functions” and cited Cady v Dombrowski and several other cases in their finding. Secondly, even when not performing a community caretaking function, a police officer may search a home without a warrant if, in an emergency, “the exigencies of the situation,” makes the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the FourthAmendment.
Ultimately the opionion reads: “Because the defendant’s (Wood) response to the emergency he perceived was objectively reasonable, he is entitled to qualified immunity.” Dillion said, “The option left is the Hunsburgers can opt for a full petition to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court in a move called an ‘en banc’ but that is highly unusual when there are no dissenting opinions.”