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In-House Explosion Triggers the Emergency Doctrine

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Robert Infante was charged with five criminal offenses after firefighters found marijuana plants and pipe bombs in his home. Infante moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that it was discovered pursuant to a search that violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The district court denied his motion

The First Circuit affirmed that decision because a 911 call, a missing finger, and a mention of an in-house explosion are pretty good reasons for authorities to enter a home under the emergency doctrine.

Infante called 911 and asked for an ambulance after he blew off his finger tip in a small propane tank explosion. Granted, he didn't say, "Send me an ambulance -- I hurt myself making pipe bombs," but he didn't have to.

Before the ambulance arrived, Infante called back to 911, and told the operator that he was going to drive himself to the hospital. Two of the emergency responders encountered Infante on the road, and offered assistance before escorting him to the hospital. While they treated Infante, they learned that the explosion occurred inside Infante's home.

That information was relayed to other firefighters, who had since arrived at Infante's house. The firefighters at the house eventually entered the home -- without a warrant -- to "make sure there was no other hazards to anybody, to the homeowner if he were to return or to the public around the house."

While inside, they discovered pot plants and pipe bomb implements. Infante argued that evidence should be suppressed. The First Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

A warrantless search of a private residence is presumptively unreasonable unless an exception -- like the emergency doctrine -- applies. Under this doctrine, warrantless entry is justified when there is reasonable belief that "swift action is required to safeguard life or prevent serious harm."

The government bears the burden of showing a reasonable basis -- approximating probable cause -- both for the government official's belief in the existence of an emergency and for associating the perceived emergency with the area or place to be searched.

It didn't have a problem satisfying that burden.

The firefighters had the following facts before they entered Infante's residence:

  1. They were responding to a "fire call and rescue" for a "propane explosion" that had severed Infante's finger.
  2. Two responders witnessed Infante's significant injuries, including multiple shrapnel-type wounds on his chest.
  3. Infante said that the explosion had occurred inside his house.
  4. An inspection of the exterior of the residence and its immediate surroundings revealed no signs that the explosion had occurred outside.
  5. Firefighters saw a blood trail in the house through the window, and they heard a "hissing" that was probably -- but not necessarily -- running water.

Here, the appellate court concluded that Infante's reports of an explosion involving volatile gas -- coupled with his significant wounds that were consistent with an explosion -- caused the firefighters to reasonably perceive an emergency.

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