Can the Police Break Down My Door?

home-florida-300x225Let’s say you’re inside your home.

Let’s say the police are pounding on your front door.

Let’s say the police are demanding entry because they have probable cause to arrest you.

Let’s say you tell the police to piss off, and that you’re not letting them in.

Let’s say the police kick down your door.

Is this legal?

Notice what I didn’t say.  I didn’t say they have a warrant.  All they have is probable cause to arrest you for something.

What we have here is the facts in the recent case of Nieves v. State.  2019 Fla.App.LEXIS 12095 (Fla. 2d DCA 2019).  Nieves’ girlfriend called the police, claiming he beat her.  The girlfriend waits outside of the hotel room for the police to arrive, the police interview her and decide they have probable cause to arrest Nieves for domestic violence battery.  So, the police knock on the hotel room door in an attempt to arrest Nieves.  Nieves talks to the police and refuses to answer the door.  The police decide to get the resort’s management involved.  The police now have a key to enter the room and arrest Nieves.

However, Nieves braced the bed against the door and as the appellate court noted, “Mr. Nieves’ ingenuity with the bed left [the police] unable to enter.  One officer started to kick through the door.  Some others removed the screen from the open window, grabbed Mr. Nieves, and pulled him through the window and out of the room.  He struggled as the police attempted to put him in handcuffs.”  id. at 3

Mr. Nieves was charged with battery domestic violence, and resisting an officer without violence.  Furthermore, Nieves was on probation for burlary of a dwelling, so these misdemeanors violated his probation.  At his probation hearing, the violation of probation (VOP) judge found that he violated his probation by committing the crime of resisting an officer without violence.  Now, resisting an officer is a pretty broad crime and basically, you’re guilty of resisting if you disobey the lawful command of an officer.  In our case, the struggle that ensued as the police pulled Nieves through the hotel window is considered resisting an officer without violence.

But, was it legal for the police to enter this hotel room and grab Nieves in the first place?  If not, then Nieves cannot be found guilty of resisting an illegal police action.  Are you with me so far?

The case boils down to this: was it legal for the officers to break into Nieves’ hotel room to arrest him?

First, we all know that some places are more protected than others.  Your home is the “Holy of Holy’s”.  It carries the maximum protection under American law and its found in the Fourth Amendement to the Constitution which says that the government cannot enter a place protected by the Fourth Amendment without a warrant.

So, did the police have a warrant?  Heck no.  But the analysis doesn’t stop there, because the prosecutors are claiming that even though these officers didn’t have a warrant they were acting pursuant to an exception to the warrant requirement.

At this point, a little perspective might be helpful.  The police have every right to arrest Nieves based upon their probable cause that he committed the offense of battery. If Nieves was hanging out by the resort pool–you wouldn’t be reading this right now because the resort pool isn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment, its a semi-public place.  The police could have legally entered the gated resort pool area and arrested Nieves.  Case closed.  However, if the police want to enter somebody’s home to make an arrest–THEY MUST HAVE A WARRANT, or have some damn good exception to that warrant requirement.

Ok, back to the exceptions.

The only exception to the warrant requirement the prosecutor could argue (with a straight face) is what we call the exigent circumstances exception.  This “exception is generally triggered when the police have an urgent need to address some sort of emergency, such as a threat to the safety of persons or property, a reasonable concern that the suspect might flee, or a reasonable concern that evidence may be destroyed.”  id. at 7-8.   

Do we have any sort of threat or emergency pending on this misdemeanor allegation of battery?

We know that “the victim was out of the room and safe from Mr. Nieves” when the police pulled him out of the hotel windoW–so no danger there.  Also, Mr. Nieves was not a danger to himself, nor to anyone other than his girlfriend who was out of harms way.  And, given the layout of the hotel, there was no way for Mr. Nieves to flee.  Therefore, the appellate court correctly ruled that “the warrantless entry by police into the motel room to arrest Mr. Nieves was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.” id. at 9-10.

Because the police had no business entering this hotel room without a warrant, Mr. Nieves did not commit the offense of resisting an officer without violence.

For another bit of perspective here, had these officers just taken a few minutes (well, maybe hours?) to get a valid search warrant signed–which any judge would have done–we wouldn’t be chatting about this case being overturned.  One piece of paper, a warrant, signed by a judge, would have rendered all of this perfectly legal.  Go ahead, bust down the door.  Go ahead, pull him out of the window.  But they didn’t have a warrant in this case.  And again, we have a Constitution.  This is the United States of America.  We don’t allow our police officers to roam free to barge into homes whenever they need to arrest someone.   We pride ourselves in having a Constitution that imposes restrictions on government action.  That’s what the Constitution is all about, imposing restrictions on the government.

Just to be slightly redundant here, let’s address the title of this article, “Can the police break down my door?”  If they have a warrant, yes they can.  If they have an exception to the warrant requirement, yes they can.  Otherwise, like in Nieves’ case, NO WAY.  Go get a warrant.