Supreme Court of Florida
NORRIS RIGGS, JR.,
STATE OF FLORIDA,
[December 15, 2005]
In this case, we explore some of the parameters of the exigent circumstances
exception to the search warrant requirement. Specifically, we consider how the
exception applies when authorities find a child wandering alone around an
apartment complex. We review State v. Riggs, 890 So. 2d 465 (Fla. 2d DCA
2004), which expressly and directly conflicts with Eason v. State, 546 So. 2d 57
(Fla. 1st DCA 1989). In both cases, authorities found a young child wandering
alone. Fearing that its caretaker might be suffering a medical emergency, they
entered a nearby apartment. In both cases, they found marijuana in plain view. In
this case, the Second District upheld the warrantless entry as reasonable under the
circumstances, whereas in Eason the First District concluded that the police
violated the Fourth Amendment. We granted review to resolve the conflict. See
art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.; Riggs v. State, 900 So. 2d 554 (Fla. 2005) (granting
review). For the reasons explained below, we agree with the Second District that
exigent circumstances justified the entry in this case and approve that decision.
We disapprove Eason to the extent it conflicts with this opinion.
In the middle of a January night, two sheriff’s deputies were summoned to
an apartment complex in Mulberry, Florida. A four-year-old girl had been seen
wandering there, naked and alone. When the deputies arrived at about 3 a.m., they
found the girl in the company of local residents. She was disoriented and “had no
idea where she had wandered out of.” The deputies decided to search the complex
door by door for her caretakers. As one later testified, they were “concerned about
the welfare of the parents [and] obviously we’re also concerned about any type of
child abandonment or anything like that.”
The apartment complex stood three stories high, and contained as many as
fifty apartments. Upon reaching the second floor, the deputies noticed that every
door on that level appeared closed, except for one. According to one deputy, “that
[door] was standing slightly ajar, and it was just obvious that somebody had come
out of there or somebody had left it open, and that was possibly where the child
had come out of.” Through a small opening, the deputies could see light inside the
apartment. They pounded loudly on the door at least three dozen times, identifying
themselves as police officers. Although some neighbors stepped outside during the
commotion, no one inside the apartment responded.
Concerned that “something had happened to the child’s caregiver and that
maybe there was a medical concern in there,” the deputies entered the apartment.
Once inside, they continued calling out, again without response. On a coffee table
in the living room, they noticed a plastic cigar tube containing some seeds (later
determined to be marijuana). They then entered three rooms in succession. The
first contained nothing unusual. The second contained seven potted marijuana
plants with a fluorescent light suspended above them. In the third was the
petitioner Norris Riggs, along with a woman later identified as the girl’s babysitter.
After his arrest, Riggs confessed to growing the marijuana.
The State charged Riggs with manufacturing cannabis and possessing drug
paraphernalia. Riggs pled not guilty and moved to suppress the evidence, claiming
it was the fruit of an unreasonable search. At the suppression hearing, the State
argued that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry. Without making
detailed findings of fact, the trial judge followed a First District decision: “So, it
appears to me that the court’s holding in Eason is based on the lack of exigent
circumstances, that the child at that point was safe and there was no exigent
circumstances to require them going in there. I’m going to find that Eason
controls, and I will grant the motion to suppress all of the evidence.”
The facts in Eason were similar. Again a young child was found wandering
through an apartment complex. There, the lost boy was younger (two or three
years old), and the encounter occurred later in the morning (8 a.m.). Eason, 546
So. 2d at 58. The officers followed the boy to a specific apartment, where he
pointed to a partially open door and said something to the effect of, “Mommy’s in
there.” Id. Upon knocking and receiving no reply, the officers entered. They
found the boy’s caretakers in a room containing marijuana and associated
paraphernalia. The First District, overruling the trial court, held that the entry
violated the Fourth Amendment. It explained:
[The officer] admitted that prior to entering Eason’s apartment he saw
no evidence that the child had been, or was going to be, physically or
mentally abused, saw no evidence that medical intervention was
necessary, and saw no evidence of a murder or robbery. [He] also
testified that, upon his arrival at the apartment complex, the child
appeared to be in the care of a responsible adult. We must conclude,
therefore, that the state did not satisfy its burden of proving that the
officers had reasonable grounds to believe exigent circumstances
existed . . . .
Id. at 58-59.
Chief Judge Smith dissented. He argued that the majority should have
focused on the safety of the child’s mother, not the child himself. Id. at 59 (Smith,
C.J., dissenting). According to the dissent, “this episode developed substantially
beyond a mere ‘lost child’ incident when the officers were led by the child to the
partially open door and were told, ‘Mommy’s in there.’” Id. at 61. Because the
mother could have been suffering a medical emergency, Chief Judge Smith
concluded that the officers “need[ed] to act” and that it would have been illogical
for them to walk away from the scene. Id.
On appeal in this case, the Second District rejected the majority’s reasoning
in Eason and agreed with the dissent. See Riggs, 890 So. 2d at 467. The Second
District explained that “[t]he officers believed it was their duty to see that the
child’s caregiver was not incapacitated and justifiably entered the residence.” Id.
The district court accepted that belief as reasonable under the circumstances. Id. at
467-68. It therefore reversed the trial court’s order granting Riggs’s motion to
suppress. Id. at 468.
Riggs sought review in this Court based on express and direct conflict with
Eason. Although the two decisions recite the same principles of Fourth
Amendment law, we have jurisdiction because of the Second District’s
“application of a rule of law to produce a different result in a case which involves
substantially the same facts as a prior case.” Mancini v. State, 312 So. 2d 732, 733
(Fla. 1975) (citing Nielsen v. City of Sarasota, 117 So. 2d 731 (Fla. 1960)). We
granted review, Riggs, 900 So. 2d at 554, and now resolve the conflict by
approving the district court’s decision.
We must decide whether exigent circumstances justified the warrantless
entry of Riggs’s apartment. In determining that issue, we (A) explain the standard
of review, (B) summarize the exigent circumstances doctrine, and (C) discuss
medical emergencies in particular. Finally, in section (D), we apply the law to the
facts of this case.
A. Standard of Review
When reviewing rulings on motions to suppress, we “accord a presumption
of correctness . . . to the trial court’s determination of historical facts, but [we]
independently review mixed questions of law and fact that ultimately determine
constitutional issues.” Fitzpatrick v. State, 900 So. 2d 495, 510 (Fla. 2005)
(quoting Nelson v. State, 850 So. 2d 514, 521 (Fla. 2003) (quoting Connor v. State,
803 So. 2d 598, 608 (Fla. 2001))). In this case, the trial court granted the motion to
suppress after determining one historical fact––that the unattended girl was “safe”
when the deputies entered the apartment. That finding, which neither party
disputes, is entitled to a presumption of correctness. The remainder of our review
must be independent and therefore de novo.
B. The Warrant Requirement and the Exigent Circumstances Exception
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly identified “physical entry
of the home [as] the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth
Amendment is directed.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 585 (1980) (quoting
United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297, 313 (1972)).
Throughout the Supreme Court’s caselaw, “the Fourth Amendment has drawn a
firm line at the entrance to the house. Absent exigent circumstances, that threshold
may not reasonably be crossed without a warrant.” Id. at 590. As the preceding
sentence suggests, however, a well-established exception exists for “the sort of
emergency or dangerous situation, described in our cases as ‘exigent
circumstances,’ that would justify a warrantless entry into a home for the purpose
of either arrest or search.” Id. at 583.
When the government invokes this exception to support the warrantless
entry of a home, it must rebut the presumption that such entries are unreasonable.
See Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 750 (1984). To do so, it must demonstrate
a “grave emergency” that “makes a warrantless search imperative to the safety of
the police and of the community.” Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 191 (1990).
An entry is considered “imperative” when the government can show a “compelling
need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” Michigan v. Tyler, 436
U.S. 499, 509 (1978). As is often the case under the Fourth Amendment, “[t]he
reasonableness of an entry by the police upon private property is measured by the
totality of existing circumstances.” Zeigler v. State, 402 So. 2d 365, 371 (Fla.
The circumstances in which the Supreme Court has applied the exigent
circumstances exception are “few in number and carefully delineated.” U.S.
District Court, 407 U.S. at 318. They include pursuing a fleeing felon, Warden v.
Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 298-99 (1967), preventing the destruction of evidence,
Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 770-71 (1966), searching incident to a
lawful arrest, Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 762-63 (1969), and fighting
fires, Tyler, 436 U.S. at 509. Outside of those established categories, the Supreme
Court “has often heard, and steadfastly rejected, the invitation to carve out further
exceptions to the warrant requirement for searches of the home.” Rodriguez, 497
U.S. at 192.
In applying the exigent circumstances exception, we have explained its
The kinds of exigencies or emergencies that may support a
warrantless entry include those related to the safety of persons or
property, as well as the safety of police. Of course, a key ingredient
of the exigency requirement is that the police lack time to secure a
search warrant. . . . Moreover, an entry based on an exigency must be
limited in scope to its purpose. Thus, an officer may not continue her
search once she has determined that no exigency exists.
Rolling v. State, 695 So. 2d 278, 293 (Fla. 1997) (citations omitted). In other
words, where safety is threatened and time is of the essence, we have recognized
that “the need to protect life and to prevent serious bodily injury provides
justification for an otherwise invalid entry.” Arango v. State, 411 So. 2d 172, 174
C. Medical Emergencies in Particular
This case involves a particular kind of exigent circumstance––a feared
medical emergency. The United States Supreme Court has not expressly ruled on
this issue. However, it has twice discussed medical emergencies in dicta. The first
discussion appeared in Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978):
We do not question the right of the police to respond to emergency
situations. Numerous state and federal cases have recognized that the
Fourth Amendment does not bar police officers from making
warrantless entries when they reasonably believe that a person within
is in need of immediate aid. . . . “The need to protect or preserve life
or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise
illegal absent an exigency or emergency.”
Id. at 392 (quoting Wayne v. United States, 318 F.2d 205, 212 (D.C. Cir. 1963))
The second discussion appeared in Thompson v. Louisiana, 469 U.S. 17
(1984), which essentially reinforced Mincey. In Thompson, a woman shot her
husband, attempted suicide by overdosing on pills, and then, changing her mind,
called her daughter for help. The daughter contacted the police, who entered the
unconscious mother’s house, transported her to the hospital, and later searched the
house for two hours. Id. at 18-19. Although the Supreme Court did not uphold the
two-hour search, it acknowledged that the mother’s medical emergency “would
have justified the authorities in seizing evidence under the plain-view doctrine
while they were in the [mother’s] house to offer her assistance.” Id. at 22.1
Mincey and Thompson confirmed what we recognized in Hornblower v.
State, 351 So. 2d 716 (Fla. 1977): that “the ‘emergency exception’ permits police
to enter and investigate private premises to preserve life . . . or render first aid,
provided they do not enter with an accompanying intent either to arrest or search.”
Id. at 718. As other courts have explained, and we have reiterated, this authority
“is inherent in the very nature of their duties as peace officers and derives from the
common law.” Zeigler, 402 So. 2d at 371; see also United States v. Barone, 330
F.2d 543, 545 (2d Cir. 1964) (containing the same assertion). It is built into the
Fourth Amendment’s concept of reasonableness.
Some courts also cite Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973), as supporting a
medical emergency exception. Cady upheld a warrantless inventory search of an
automobile, deeming it one of a police agency’s “community caretaking functions,
totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence
relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Id. at 441. We do not rely on Cady,
however, because the Court’s analysis was expressly limited to the automobile
context. See id. at 442 (noting a “constitutional difference between searches of and
seizures from houses and similar structures and from vehicles”).
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Unlike the United States Supreme Court, we have addressed this issue
several times and have upheld warrantless entries motivated by feared medical
emergencies. Three cases stand out. In the first, we upheld a warrantless entry
where the police tried to identify a chemical that had apparently poisoned seven
children then in critical condition. Richardson v. State, 247 So. 2d 296, 297-98
(Fla. 1971). We emphasized that the “searches of the premises were made for the
purpose of aiding doctors to save the children’s lives and before defendant became
[a] suspect.” Id. at 298.
In the second case, we upheld a warrantless entry to prevent a feared suicide
attempt. Turner v. State, 645 So. 2d 444 (Fla. 1994). The defendant opened the
door of his motel room to police and, leaving it ajar, walked back to his bed. He
then pulled a gun and pointed it at his head. Confirming that “officers can make
warrantless entries if they reasonably believe a person inside has immediate need,”
we held that “[t]his was such an emergency, so the officers did not err in entering
Turner’s motel room. And, once legally inside the room, police could seize
evidence in plain view.” Id. at 447.
In the third case, we held that defense counsel in a death-penalty trial was
not deficient in failing to move to suppress evidence based on a warrantless entry
into the defendant’s home. See Zakrzewski v. State, 866 So. 2d 688, 693-95 (Fla.
2003). The police had received reports that the defendant failed to attend an Air
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Force class, that his home had a broken window, and that his mail was
accumulating. An officer entered the defendant’s home through the broken
window because he “feared for the welfare of whomever may have been in the
house at that time.” Id. at 695 (quoting officer’s testimony). We agreed that a
motion to suppress would have been futile because the officer “did not enter [the
defendant’s] home with the intent to seize evidence or make an arrest.” Id.
In all three cases, when the police entered the dwelling they suspected some
kind of medical emergency. In Richardson, they did not know if they would find
the unidentified poison. In Turner, they did not know if the defendant actually
intended to kill himself. In Zakrzewski, they did not know why the defendant was
missing. We deemed each entry reasonable. Our decisions therefore confirm that
authorities may enter a private dwelling based on a reasonable fear of a medical
emergency. In those limited circumstances, the sanctity of human life becomes
more important than the sanctity of the home.
We have not yet considered, however, a case involving a child lost in a
housing complex. Nor have most other states. The only jurisdiction with closely
analogous cases appears to be California. The leading case there is People v.
Smith, 496 P.2d 1261 (Cal. 1972). In Smith, the police were summoned when a
six-year-old girl was found crying outside her apartment at 5 p.m. Although the
girl informed the officer that her mother was not inside the apartment, the officer
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knocked on the door “to find out if [the mother] was there, if she could take care of
her daughter, and if she may need any help.” Id. at 1263. Receiving no answer,
the officer entered without a warrant and found marijuana in plain view. The
California Supreme Court affirmed suppression of the evidence. It explained that
“a six-year-old girl is obviously competent to state whether her mother is at home
or not.” Id. Further, the court determined that “[t]here was not a scintilla of
evidence to support the assumption that [the mother] had not only returned
unnoticed to her flat but had thereupon suddenly fainted, fallen sick, or otherwise
become incapacitated.” Id. at 1264. Thus, “the belief upon which the officer acted
was the product not of facts known to or observed by him, but of his fanciful
attempt to rationalize silence into a justification for his warrantless entry.” Id.
The circumstances in Smith differed from those here in four respects: here
the unattended girl (1) was two years younger; (2) was naked; (3) was found in the
middle of the night; and (4) was totally disoriented, never stating or even implying
where her caretaker was. California’s intermediate appellate courts have
distinguished Smith based on such differences. See, e.g., People v. Miller, 81 Cal.
Rptr. 2d 410, 415 n.4 (Cal. Ct. App. 1999) (distinguishing Smith because “[t]here,
the child was six years old and she specifically told the officer that her mother was
not home,” whereas the child in Miller was two years old and dressed in a diaper);
In re Dawn O., 128 Cal. Rptr. 852, 854 (Cal. Ct. App. 1976) (upholding a similar
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entry that occurred at 10:30 p.m. because “[t]he lateness of the hour makes any
concern . . . about the presence of [the child’s] parents . . . much more reasonable
than might be in the case of an entry at 5:00 p.m.”). Thus, we do not find Smith
sufficiently analogous to be helpful.
D. Applying the Law to this Case
We must decide whether the deputies in this case acted reasonably in
entering Riggs’s apartment without a warrant because they feared that the
unattended girl’s caretaker might need medical attention. The girl was four years
old, naked, and wandering through the apartment complex at 3 a.m. on a January
night. She was disoriented. The deputies were never told that she came from
Riggs’s apartment. Rather, while knocking on doors one-by-one, they noticed that
his apartment was the only one on the second floor whose door was open. They
also noticed light coming from inside. After receiving no response to three dozen
loud knocks, which brought some of the neighbors outside, they entered the
Riggs contends that the deputies acted unreasonably. He asserts, first, that
the deputies lacked a sufficient objective basis for fearing a medical emergency;
and second, that they lacked a sufficient objective basis for connecting any
emergency with his apartment. We address each argument in turn.
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The first question is whether the deputies had reasonable grounds to believe
that the girl’s caretaker might need medical attention. We conclude that they had
sufficient empirical evidence to support their belief. First, the girl was only four
years old. See Miller, 81 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 415 n.4 (emphasizing the age of the child
as an objective factor indicating an emergency). Second, she was alone outside in
the middle of the night in January. See Dawn O., 128 Cal. Rptr. at 854
(emphasizing “the lateness of the hour”). Third, she was not wearing any clothes.
See Miller, 81 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 415 (emphasizing that the child was “wearing only a
diaper”). Together, these facts seem to indicate either grossly negligent
supervision or an emergency involving the child’s caretaker.
The second question is whether the deputies had reasonable grounds to
connect the feared emergency to the apartment they entered. We acknowledge that
the deputies were uncertain that the girl came from Riggs’s apartment. Unlike the
situation in Eason, where the young boy led the police to a particular apartment
and said, “Mommy’s in there,” 546 So. 2d at 58, the girl in this case did not lead
the deputies in any particular direction. A search based on a feared medical
emergency, however, does not require certainty. The Fourth Amendment, which
protects against unreasonable searches, requires only that the police reasonably
believe that an emergency exists.
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Here, strong circumstantial evidence pointed to Riggs’s apartment. The
officers found the girl close to an apartment complex, through which she had been
wandering. They logically turned their attention to the complex, commencing a
door-to-door search. They were drawn to Riggs’s apartment because it was 3 a.m.
and his was the only apartment on that floor with an open door. Light emanated
from the apartment, indicating occupancy. Yet the deputies received no response
to three dozen knocks, which were loud enough to bring neighbors out of their
apartments. This is precisely the cluster of clues that one would expect to find in
the event a caretaker had become incapacitated and a young child had wandered
off. The deputies’ suspicion of a medical emergency therefore was based on
reasonable inferences drawn from the available evidence.
We cannot accept Riggs’s argument that the deputies should have simply
walked away from his open door, or that they should have searched the rest of the
complex for other open doors before entering his apartment. Given their
reasonable fear of a medical emergency, the deputies did not have time to retreat
and weigh their options. As the First Circuit recently explained, officers fearing
emergencies often “need [to make] an on-the-spot judgment based on incomplete
information and sometimes ambiguous facts bearing upon the potential for serious
consequences.” See United States v. Martins, 413 F.3d 139, 147 (1st Cir. 2005),
cert. denied, 74 U.S.L.W. 3288 (U.S. Nov. 7, 2005). The deputies in this case
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made precisely such a judgment. The resulting invasion of privacy is one that
prudent, law-abiding citizens can accept as the fair and necessary price of having
the police available as a safety net in emergencies.
We conclude that, in entering Riggs’s apartment without a warrant, the
deputies acted reasonably and consistent with the Fourth Amendment. We
therefore approve the Second District’s decision to reverse the trial court’s
suppression of the evidence and to remand the case for further proceedings. We
disapprove the First District’s conflicting decision in Eason.
It is so ordered.
PARIENTE, C.J., and WELLS, ANSTEAD, LEWIS, QUINCE, and BELL, JJ.,
NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION, AND
IF FILED, DETERMINED.
Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Direct
Second District - Case No. 2D03-2961
James Marion Moorman, Public Defender, Bruce P. Taylor, Assistant Public
Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, Florida,
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Charles J. Crist, Jr., Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, Robert J. Krauss,
Chief Assistant Attorney General, Bureau Chief, Tampa Criminal Appeals,
Marilyn Muir Beccue and Richard M. Fishkin, Assistant Attorney Generals,
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