A U.S. circuit court of appeals gave its blessing last week to the search of a gun enthusiast’s home, as well as the seizure of her weapons, while lacking both search warrant and evidence that she had committed a crime.
The case originated three years ago when Krysta Sutterfield allegedly made “a suicidal remark” to her psychiatrist, Dr. Michelle Bentle, “during a difficult session,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
After Bentle phoned her fears to the Milwaukee police, officers were dispatched to Sutterfield’s home, but she wasn’t there. According to the Sentinel:
But officers returned to Sutterfield’s residence that evening, some nine hours after her comment to her doctor. They found her at home. She told them she was fine, did not want their help and asked them to leave, and called 911 when they would not.
The officers forcibly entered, handcuffed Sutterfield and took her to the county’s Mental Health Complex.
They also seized a handgun and several out-of-state concealed-carry licenses, found inside a locked CD case, and a BB gun that resembled a Glock firearm.
Sutterfield later sued.
She lost in federal district court; the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court opinion. According to the Sentinel:
Sutterfield, 45, claimed police violated her rights against unreasonable search and seizure and Second Amendment rights to keep a gun, but a district judge dismissed the case.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 75-page opinion analyzing existing law about when police may act without search warrants, upheld the decision but suggested there might be better ways to balance personal privacy rights in the context of emergency mental health evaluations.
“The intrusions upon Sutterfield’s privacy were profound,” the opinion stated. “At the core of the privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment is the right to be let alone in one’s home.”
But against those fundamental rights, the court found that, “There is no suggestion that [police] acted for any reason other than to protect Sutterfield from harm.”
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Arizona vs. Gant that “Warrantless searches are per se unreasonable, subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.”
Among those exceptions are exigent circumstances, defined as “Those circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons,” according to People vs. Ramey.
Exigent circumstances would have been a good argument for the officers when they first arrived at Sutterfield’s home. But in the hours that had elapsed until they finally forcibly gained entry, the police had ample time to obtain a warrant.