The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided the issue of whether to suppress evidence of a gun and cocaine base obtained when police entered a private residence under the mistaken, but reasonable, belief that the house was abandoned. The court held that based on the totality of the circumstances, the warrantless search was permitted under the Fourth Amendment.
In this case, Harrison, the defendant-appellant, lived at 2015 North Eighth Street in Philadelphia, but paid the owner $750 a month to use the house at 2114 North Franklin Street starting in August 2009. Harrison only spent a night or two a week at the 2114 North Franklin address.
On October 2009, three Philadelphia police officers entered the private residence located at 2114 North Franklin Street in Philadelphia without a warrant because they believed the house to be abandoned and they had spotted a stolen bike in the backyard of this address. Upon entering the house, they found Harrison sitting in a recliner with a gun, scales, pills and cocaine base on the table next to him. The government charged Harrison with possession with intent to distribute five grams or more cocaine base. At the district court, Harrison moved to suppress the evidence.
At the suppression hearing at the district court, the officers testified to the condition of the house and described 2114 North Franklin Street as “in a state of constant and severe disrepair.” Officer McCarthy, one of the officers who found Harrison with the cocaine base, testified that the backyard was full of trash and there were “boards on the door and the window.” The officers described the yard as covered in weeds and untended, the windows were boarded up with plywood, there was trash all over the yard, and the “front door [was] never locked.” Officer McCarthy testified that the house’s state of disrepair did not change over the course of several months leading up to the October 2009 entry. Officer McCarthy had also entered 2114 North Franklin Street several times in the months leading up to October 2009 and he described the house as a “known drug residence,” although he never made any arrests or filled out any incident reports prior to finding Harrison with cocaine on October 2009. He observed “drug users and dealers hanging our outside, going in and out the front door all day long” and he observed this activity “all summer.” Officer McCarthy did not think anyone could actually be living there, as the house did not seem habitable. He testified that he last entered the house two or three weeks prior to the October search that is at issue here.
The district court denied the motion. Harrison then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
On appeal, the court decided the issue of whether the abandonment exception applied to the Fourth Amendment requirement that the police not conduct a search without a warrant. A warrantless search of property is permissible under the Fourth Amendment where the owner has abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in that property. Here, it was undisputed that the house was not actually abandoned and that Harrison, as a renter, possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the property. The court of appeals looked at the totality of the facts and circumstances to make a determination of whether the police officers’ belief that the house was abandoned justified their warrantless entry.
The court of appeals determined that the mistake that the house was abandoned was reasonable and therefore the police were justified with their warrantless entry. The court of appeals found notable that Officer McCarthy knew that the inside of the house matched the rundown condition of the exterior. It was a known “drug den.” There were no furnishings other than a single mattress on the top floor, human waste filled the bathtub and toilets, and there was no evidence of running water or electricity. During his prior entries, Officer McCarthy observed squatters, who claimed no right to be there. The house was so dilapidated that the officers believed it was not fit for human habitation. Further, the front door was described as “always open” over the course of several months.
Therefore, the court of appeals found Officer McCarthy’s account of the house’s inside condition, combined with the exterior condition of the property, over the course of approximately four months, as probative evidence of abandonment. Thus, the court of appeals held that based on the totality of the circumstances, the warrantless search was permitted under the Fourth Amendment and the district court did not err when it denied Harrison’s motion to suppress.
The case is U.S. v. Harrison, No. 11-2566, dated August 7, 2012. To review the full decision, visit: http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/112566p.pdf.