The defendant’s house caught fire. Local firefighters went to his house and extinguished the blaze. The fire had been doused and all fire officials and police left the premises at 7:04 a.m. Arson investigators entered the defendant’s residence without consent or a warrant about 1:30 p.m. When the investigators arrived at the scene, a work crew was boarding up the house and pumping water out of the basement. Firefighters who fought the blaze found a fuel can in the basement and placed it in the driveway where the arson investigators seized it. In the basement, where the fire had originated, the arson investigators found two more fuel cans and a suspiciously positioned crock-pot. The investigators then made an extensive and thorough search of the rest of the house, calling in a photographer to take pictures.
Whether the arson investigators needed a warrant to search the contents of the dwelling?
Yes. Once the emergency presented by the fire was terminated, the government needed consent or a warrant to intrude.
Non-consensual entries onto fire-damaged premises normally turns on several factors, including whether there are legitimate privacy interests in the fire-damaged property, whether exigent circumstances justify the government intrusion regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy, and whether the object of the search is to determine the cause of the fire or to gather evidence of criminal activity. In this case, the defendant retained reasonable privacy interests in his fire-damaged home.
The firefighters’ initial entry was valid as an emergency scene exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. However, by the time the arson investigators arrived at the dwelling, the emergency was no longer in existence. This was not merely a continuation of the earlier valid entry by firefighters.
Where a warrant is necessary to search a fire-damaged premises, an administrative warrant suffices if the primary object of the search is to determine the cause and origin of the fire. A criminal search warrant, obtained with probable cause, is required if the primary object of the search is to gather evidence of criminal activity. While the evidence found inside the home by the arson investigators was unreasonably seized, the fuel can seized in the driveway by the arson investigators was admissible whether seized in the basement by firefighters or in the driveway by arson investigators.
464 U.S. 287, 104 S. Ct. 641 (1984)