Is an arrest warrant for one person good to enter and search another person's home?

Comm. v. Romero, __ A.3d __ (Pa., Apr. 26, 2018)

Is an arrest warrant for one person good to enter and search another person’s home?

This discretionary appeal resulted in a plurality opinion, splintering the Supreme Court’s seven justices into roughly two equal camps.  The issue on appeal, simply stated, was this: is an arrest warrant for a suspect sufficient enough to gain entry to another person’s home to arrest the suspect?  In other words: is the third party’s Fourth Amendment guarantee to be free from unreasonable searches and warrantless entries to their home sufficiently protected by the mere issuance of an arrest warrant for another?

Briefly, in this case, Ernest Moreno absconded from a halfway house in Philadelphia while on state parole.  A warrant was issued for Moreno’s arrest, and his parole agent undertook an investigation in order to locate him and take him into custody.  A last-known address that Moreno had provided to parole authorities, years back, was for his half-brother’s and wife’s residence, who were the parties in this appeal.

Obviously, the parole agent, accompanied by U.S. Marshals, showed up at the the half-brother’s house and presented the arrest warrant for Moreno’s arrest.  At the suppression hearing, the uncontradicted evidence established that law enforcement was not explicitly given consent to enter the home.  Nevertheless, while inside, law enforcement stumbled upon a “marijuana-growing operating,” consisting of numerous marijuana plants, but they did not find Moreno there.  Of course, his brother and his brother’s wife, Romero and Castro, were charged for the marijuana grow operation.

Both Romero and Castro challenged law enforcement’s entry into their home by filing a Motion to Suppress in the trial court.  There they argued that the U.S. Supreme Court case of Steagald v. United States granted them relief.  That case held that a warrant for an individual’s arrest does not authorize an entry into the home of a third party not named in the arrest warrant. “To protect third parties’ interests in the privacy of their homes, the Steagald Court held, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement mandates a magistrate’s determination of probable cause before police may enter those homes in order to search the premises for the individual named in the arrest warrant.”

In opposition to Romero and Castro’s arguments, the Commonwealth countered that law enforcement’s entry into the home was lawful under the rule set forth in another U.S. Supreme Court case decided a year prior to SteagaldPayton v. New York.  There the Supreme Court stated that “an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within.”  Here, however, this pronouncement from the High Court was “dictum,” meaning “a judicial comment made while delivering a judicial opinion, but one that is unnecessary to the decision in the case and therefore not precedential.”  Thus, the resolution of this case boiled down to squaring this dicta with the rule laid out in Steagald, and that’s what split the Pennsylvania Supreme Court into two.

In the one camp, which authored the Opinion Announcing the Judgment of the Court (OAJC), was Justices Wecht, Todd, and Donohue.  Justice Wecht authored the 60-some page opinion, which thoroughly analyzed the interplay between the Payton dictum and Steagald and tackled what was referred to as the “uncertain residence problem.”  (This referred to the problem of police making assessments in the field, detached from independent judicial decision-making, of whether a particular suspect, in fact, inhabited a particular residence.)  Here, regarding this uncertain residence problem, the OAJC had this to say:

For constitutional purposes, when an investigation to locate an intended arrestee commences, any candidate residence potentially may be that of a third party, and entry into a third party’s home can be justified only by a magisterial determination of probable cause, not merely by an officer’s unchecked discretion. No matter how obvious the determination of a suspect’s residence may seem, self-evidence as to location of the target of a search, as adjudged by a law enforcement officer, does not suffice to justify a warrantless entry to conduct a search for personal property, and it similarly cannot suffice for purposes of entering a home to search for and to apprehend a suspect. The search for an object inside of a home requires a search warrant, and the Steagald Court saw “no reason to depart from this settled course when the search of a home is for a person rather than an object.”

Thus, bearing this in mind, the OAJC concluded this way:

[W]e conclude that the Fourth Amendment requires that, even when seeking to execute an arrest warrant, a law enforcement entry into a home must be authorized by a warrant reflecting a magisterial determination of probable cause to search that home, whether by a separate search warrant or a contained within the arrest warrant itself.  Absent such a warrant, an entry into a residence is excused only by a recognized exception to the search warrant requirement.

Ultimately, this reason and conclusion aside, the Court sent the case back to the trial court, which originally suppressed the evidence of the grow operation, to make a determination whether the original arrest warrant reflected a probable-cause determination to search Romero’s and Castro’s home for Moreno.  That arrest warrant was not contained in the record for the Supreme Court to review.  In this regard, therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court’s earlier determination that search of the residence was lawful, and it did so mainly because the Superior Court misapplied the controlling standard of review.  And it was on that point which Justice Mundy joined in the determination and the mandate of the OAJC.  But otherwise, Justice Mundy took a different track—similar to that of Justice Dougherty (and Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Baer)—in terms of the OAJC’s treatment of Payton and Steagald.  Justice Mundy viewed Payton as “its own constitutional rule” to be left untouched. In other words, she would not have gone as far the OAJC in resolving this case and essentially eschewing the Payton dictum.

Justice Dougherty likewise would not have gone as far as the OAJC in resolving this case.  He, Chief Justice Saylor, and Justice Baer would have resolved this case by simply noting that the parole agent, in the first instance, did not have sufficient probable cause to believe Moreno lived in Romero’s and Castro’s home, and therefore any entry therein to search for and arrest Moreno was unlawful.  Essentially, this grouping of the Court would have found it sufficient to merely apply the Steagald rule without having to craft a new rule.

In sum, the overall take away from the judgment of the court is this: law enforcement must possess probable cause to believe that the subject of an arrest warrant is in the place they are entering to effectuate their arrest.