A fire broke out in the defendant’s furniture store and the local fire department responded. When the fire chief arrived two hours later, firefighters reported the discovery of plastic containers of flammable liquid. The chief summoned a detective to investigate possible arson. The detective took pictures but stopped the investigation because of the smoke. Two hours later, the fire was extinguished and the firefighters departed. The fire chief and detective removed the containers and left. There was neither consent nor a warrant for any of these entries or for the removal of the containers. Four hours later, the chief and his assistant returned for a cursory examination of the building and removed more pieces of evidence. Three weeks later, a state police officer took pictures at the store and made an inspection where further evidence was collected. Further entries were also made, all without warrants.
Whether all warrantless governmental intrusions were reasonable?No. Official entries to investigate the cause of a fire must adhere to the warrant procedures of the Fourth Amendment, unless the entry falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.
No. Official entries to investigate the cause of a fire must adhere to the warrant procedures of the Fourth Amendment, unless the entry falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.
A Fourth Amendment search occurs whenever the government intrudes on a reasonable expectation of privacy. All entries are presumed illegal if no warrant is obtained. The Court has recognized several exceptions to this rule. A burning building presents an emergency of sufficient proportions to render a warrantless entry under the Fourth Amendment. Once firefighters are inside a building, they may remain there for the duration of the emergency. While there, the government may investigate the cause of the fire and may seize evidence of arson that is in plain view. In this case, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred by the firefighters’ entry to extinguish the fire at the defendant’s store, nor by the chief’s removal of the plastic containers. Similarly, no warrant was required for the re-entries into the building and for the seizure of evidence after the departure of the fire chief and other personnel since these were a continuation of the first entry that was temporarily interrupted by smoke.
However, if investigating officials require further access after the emergency concludes, they must obtain a warrant. To secure a warrant to investigate the cause of a fire, an official must show more than the bare fact that a fire has occurred. The government must establish probable cause that arson was committed. As this was not done for the non-emergency entries, they were considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
436 U.S. 499, 98 S. Ct. 1942 (1978)