25 March 2013

Police shut down an underage drinking party, but what about the Fourth Amendment?

Police in Anne Arundel County shut down an underage drinking party and cited 22 juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17. Aside from the important issue of underage drinking, let's take a look at this incident from a Fourth Amendment perspective.

Consider the following police report (emphasis is mine):
On March 23, 2013, at approximately 9:00 p.m., officers were dispatched to a residence in the 100 block of Southway Drive in Severna Park for a report of an underage drinking party.  This was the third such call in four months at this address. 
As the first officer arrived, the officer observed juveniles walking out of the residence with cans of beer in their hands. The officer subsequently entered the open door and found the home full of juveniles consuming alcohol. Several subjects fled from the home before additional officers arrived, but officers were able to detain 22 individuals in the residence. One of the juveniles fell out of a second story window as he attempted to avoid detection by the officers, yet he was uninjured and brought in with the rest of the subjects. All of the individuals were under the legal drinking age and in the possession of alcohol. The adult homeowner was not at home. 
 In total, 22 juveniles, males and females between the ages of 14 and 17, were charged via citation with underage liquor law violations. Due to their various states of intoxication, the juveniles were all detained at the residence until officers were able to contact their parents who responded to take custody of their children.
Probable cause here is simple: The police had received three calls in four months at this address; the the officer observed juveniles walking out of the residence with cans of beer in their hands. Police could have obtained a search warrant; However, there is no evidence that they did.

The police presumably entered the private residence without a warrant. Warrantless searches are presumed to be unconstitutional. As a result, to be a valid search, the police must point to a warrant exception. Probably the most likely exception here is plain view, because the officer, while standing outside the home, observed juveniles walking out of the residence with cans of beer in their hands. On the other hand, the officer found the home full of juveniles consuming alcohol after he entered the open door. Plain view permits the seizure of evidence if police are lawfully in the location from which the evidence can be viewed.

Other warrant exceptions (search incident to lawful arrest, consent, stop and frisk, automobile exception, emergencies or hot pursuit) probably don't apply. One might try to make a case that underage drinking was an emergency, but absent any view of someone passed out or in otherwise immediate need of medical attention (as viewed from outside the home), this probably doesn't add up.

As for standing, unless one of the juveniles actually lived at the home, none of them could likely challenge the search because they don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that home as temporary social guest. Only the homeowner could do that. It would be interesting to see a challenge here, but I think it's unlikely that would happen. It is an interesting fact pattern, nonetheless.

If you want to restore and protect the Fourth Amendment, you have to be able to look past criminality. You have to be able to say that even though police thwarted underage drinking, that end result is worth challenging if it violates a basic principle of the Bill of Rights. Challenging questionable police conduct doesn't mean I condone underage drinking. But the Fourth Amendment (and the Bill of Rights in general) is more important than a house party.

What do you think?
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