The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It also requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before entering one’s home to conduct a search. Probable cause exists when law enforcement reasonably believes the object of the search is located inside or that an offense has or is being committed. There are, however, instances where the police may enter the home without a warrant. Exigent circumstances permit this; these are circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry was necessary to prevent physical harm, to prevent the destruction of evidence, or to capture a suspect. Exigent circumstances are not limited to those listed above. Also, the burden of establishing the exigent circumstance existed rests with the State. Courts will typically employ a totality of the circumstances approach to determine whether or not law enforcement acted reasonably. If the court finds an exigent circumstance wasn’t present, then the evidence obtained will be inadmissible at trial.
Most state constitutions have clauses that closely resemble the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. For example, Part I, Article 19 of the New Hampshire Constitution reads, “Every subject hath a right to be secure from all unreasonable searches and seizures of his person, his house, his papers, and all his possessions.” Furthermore, “Warrantless police entries are per se unreasonable and thus illegal unless made pursuant to a judicially created exception.” In this instance, a judicially created exception is synonymous with an exigent circumstance.
Enter Patrick Chung
On June 25th, 2019 officers from the Meredith, New Hampshire police department were dispatched to Chung’s residence “on a call for service.” In this case it was due to a tripped security alarm. Upon entry, police found evidence which eventually lead to Chung’s August 8th indictment for cocaine possession, a Class B felony. Meredith is a small town three hours North of Foxboro. Chung maintains a residence there, but it is not his primary residence and he wasn’t there at the time of the incident, nor was anyone else. There is also no indication as to how much time Chung spends there and who else has access to the property. The Patriots, true to form, are aware of the situation and will let the judicial process unfold.
This case presents an interesting legal question: Did the proposed exigent circumstances justify an exception to the general requirement of the warrant clause of the Fourth Amendment? Nobody was in apparent physical danger, and there was no indication that evidence was being destroyed or that a suspect was about to escape.
Warrantless home searches triggered by security alarms have been upheld in the past where the police have found an open window and entered to search for possible captives or suspects, but instead found marijuana. Here, there was no open window and no mention that the police believed there to be captives or suspects inside the home at the time of entry. On the other hand, exigent circumstances were not found where an officer “observed the front door slightly ajar.” Cases like this can go either way and often hinge on law enforcement’s justifications for entry and perception of the scene. Law enforcement doesn’t need to be right in these situations, either. They simply need to act as a reasonable person would. Furthermore, one may struggle to see where the probable cause existed. The police were not searching for anything specific. They were just responding to a service call. There was also no indication that a crime had or was being committed.
It’ll be interesting to see how this case plays out, especially as more details come to light. Chung has a sound legal argument should he choose to pursue it. If his home was in fact illegally searched, then all the evidence found would be inadmissible and the prosecution would likely have to dismiss the charges. But a long and drawn out court battle isn’t the Patriot way, unless of course you’re Tom Brady. Chung is subject to discipline from the league office whether or not he is found guilty of an offense. Under the personal conduct policy a player may be suspended for being a “subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding.” Chung’s indictment for cocaine possession exposes him to a possible suspension. The league doesn’t usually take immediate action in these matters and will likely wait to take action until the case is fully adjudicated.