The phone rings. A 911 dispatcher starts to answer, but the line goes dead. The dispatcher calls back. No one answers. Was it a misdial or a cry for help cut short? Because callers often expect help to arrive when intentionally calling 911, the police respond to the address from which the call likely originated.' Police approach the house and knock on the door. Again, no one answers. There may be an emergency inside, so the police enter the house without a warrant and without consent. If they find a heart attack victim lying on the floor, they might save a life. If they find sleeping parents and a tech-savvy toddler, they might educate and leave. But if they find evidence of a crime-say, cocaine or illegal firearms-they might make an arrest based on evidence found during their warrantless entry and search of the home.
Americans call 911 nearly 240 million times a year. Nearly eighty million are hang-ups or inadvertent calls, conveying no information. Police officers responding to such calls face a confounding dilemma: society expects them to promptly prevent harm and render aid, but the Fourth Amendment guarantees protection from unreasonable searches. In an attempt to balance these interests, courts rely on the emergency aid doctrine. Historically, the doctrine permitted the police to respond, without a warrant, to situations where there was an imminent risk to people and property. Recent expansions of the emergency aid doctrine, however, may tacitly allow the government to enter a home based merely on receiving a 911 hang-up-a type of call conveying no information, initiated by an unknown party, and placed for unknown reasons. Thus, the question arises whether these expansions extend the emergency aid doctrine too far.
The emergency aid doctrine requires the police to have an objectively reasonable basis to believe an emergency threatens imminent harm to people and property. Yet, the Supreme Court has not clearly defined what constitutes imminent harm, leading to the widespread policy of conducting warrantless searches following 911 hang-ups. Some courts uphold these searches based on a generalized presumption that 911 hang-ups are de facto emergencies involving imminent harm, even though officers have no articulable facts to believe an emergency exists. Such a presumption shifts the burden of proof from the government to the homeowner. Instead of requiring the government to demonstrate why a warrantless search was reasonable or necessary based on apparent imminent harm, a court's de facto presumption forces individuals to justify why the police should not invade their homes after receiving a mere 911 hang-up.
This Note seeks to aid practitioners by highlighting common errors that occur when analyzing 911 hang-up emergency aid responses. It therefore considers what evidentiary weight should be attributable to 911 hang-ups when analyzing the reasonableness of a warrantless search in emergency aid situations. Part II explains why the Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence applies to searches incident to 911 hang-ups, and it examines the Court's most recent articulations of the emergency aid doctrine. These articulations are then contrasted with several lower-court interpretations of the emergency aid doctrine in the context of 911 hang-ups. Given disparate outcomes, Part III examines what information 911 hang-ups actually convey, how police use that information, and how they respond to hang- up situations where information is limited. The stark reality is that 911 hang-ups convey little or no information, yet the emergency aid doctrine requires the police to have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency exists before entering a home without a warrant. Courts struggle with determining what quantum of evidence is sufficient to meet this standard. To that end, Part III concludes by exploring common judicial interpretations of what amounts to an objectively reasonable basis in the context of 911 hang-ups. Ultimately, this Note attempts to clarify the Supreme Court's analysis of emergency aid situations. Such clarification is essential to maintaining the balance between police power and individual liberty.
Thus, Part IV suggests interpreting 911 hang-ups as mere efforts to communicate rather than as de facto cries for help. By focusing on the quality and quantity of the information conveyed in 911 calls rather than presuming an emergency exists, the burden to justify warrantless entries remains with the government by requiring it to prove there was an extant and apparent emergency. This Part further argues that 911 hang-ups are tantamount to anonymous tips, in that the police need to corroborate anonymous information and any subsequent search must be based on particularized evidence. Nonetheless, limited incursions into the curtilage of a home may be reasonable when investigating 911 hang-ups. But absent any additional indices of an extant or apparent emergency, or corroboration of a call's information, the emergency aid doctrine does not permit the warrantless entry of a home. Consequently, this framework aims to uphold constitutional protections of the home while accommodating community expectations regarding police responses to 911 calls.
Alexander C. Ellman,
The Emergency Aid Doctrine and 911 Hang-ups: The Modern General Warrant,
68 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol68/iss3/6