Police received a call about a domestic assault and arrived to find that the lady of the home had fled and the husband, Joseph Yengel, Jr., was angry, agitated, possibly armed, and threatening to shoot law enforcement officers. He was eventually talked into coming out of the house unarmed and was then placed under arrest.
Sergeant Staton interviewed Mrs. Yengel, who indicated that there were many firearms and a grenade in the house. She directed him to the upstairs master bedroom, where she collected and handed over a variety of firearms. Sergeant Staton then asked about the grenade. Mrs. Yengel led him to a locked closet where she had seen her husband store the grenade two years earlier.
At this point, Staton did not evacuate the premises or nearby homes, did not contact explosive experts, and did not remove a sleeping child from the next room. With Mrs. Yengel’s permission, he pried open the closet with a screwdriver, where he found gun safes, camouflage, weapons, and a military ammunition container which he believed might contain the grenade.
Staton finally ordered the evacuation and the bomb squad, who found a backpack containing a one pound container of smokeless shotgun powder and a partially assembled explosive device attached to a kitchen timer. Charges related to the device were filed, though the District Court held that there were not sufficient exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search. The government appealed.
There are only a few circumstances which justify a search without a warrant, including fighting an on-going fire, preventing destruction of evidence, and the hot pursuit of a suspect. There is also a general “emergencies” exception.
This general emergency-as-exigency exception applies when “the person making entry must have had an objectively reasonable belief that an emergency existed that required immediate entry to render assistance or prevent harm to persons or property within.” The court also cited the Turner factors as helpful in these sorts of cases.
Does the Emergency Exception Apply?
The problem here was that there wasn’t an emergency. The officer’s actions indicate as much. He did not evacuate the house, or remove the sleeping child, before cracking the closet open. Also, a grenade is an inert device unless fondled or fiddled with. In a locked closet, with the suspect in custody, it is not an emergency.
The government cites Mora as precedent for a search as “preventative action.” However, in that case, a credible tip was received that the suspect was planning mass murder, the officers were unable to locate the suspect’s missing girlfriend, and they weren’t sure if a bomb was present or if another person was working with the suspect. None of those factors were present here. There was simply an alleged grenade locked safely in a closet.
Given that there was no pressing emergency, and the suspect was in custody, there were no exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search.
- United States v. Yengel(Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Self-Incrimination During a Sting Operation and Beyond (FindLaw’s Fourth Circuit Blog)
- I Murdered Him For Business, Not to Prevent Testimony! (FindLaw’s Fourth Circuit Blog)