Officers Are Justified in Stopping Vehicles to Render Emergency Aid Making Evidence Found in the Process Fair Game
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down an opinion dealing with the emergency-aid warrant exception and whether that exception extends to vehicular stops. The issue facing the court was whether a traffic stop of Appellant Toussaint to warn him that a gang member had ordered a hit on him was justified under the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment. The court reversed the suppression order from the trial court holding that the emergency aid exception did justify the stop because this was a proper exigent circumstance.
US v. Toussaint (5th Circuit – 2016)
The Facts—Trial Court Found the Exigent Circumstances Had Expired
An FBI agent monitoring a wiretap overheard a suspected gang-member order his associate to kill Toussaint who could be found in a specific neighborhood driving a specific car, a silver Infiniti. Immediately the agent contacted a local police officer who met with several other officers to determine the plan to locate and warn Toussaint of the hit. The officers drive to the specified neighborhood and search for silver Infinities until they find one with an occupant leaving the neighborhood. The officers follow the vehicle, observe the driver, Toussaint, speeding and pull him over. Once pulled over Toussaint flees the officers on foot until he was caught and placed under arrest. During a search of Toussaint incident to arrest officers found a pistol and a bag of crack cocaine. The amount of time between the FBI agent overhearing the initial threat and Toussaint’s arrest was about 45 minutes.
Toussaint was charged with drug and firearm violations. Toussaint filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the stop arguing that the stop was not justified. The trial court granted Toussaint’s motion to suppress finding that the exigency of the emergency had expired by the time the officers stopped Toussaint.
The Court of Appeals Reversed the Trial Courts Decision—Holding the Emergency-Aid Exception Applied in this Case and the Exigency Had Not Expired
The court held that the emergency-aid exception extends to vehicular stops when under the circumstances of the need to assist persons with serious injuries or threatened with serious injury. The emergency aid exception allows officers to conduct warrantless searches or seizures when there is a need to assist persons with serious injuries or threatened with a serious injury. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 at 483. Under this exception, officers can enter areas they otherwise are not allowed in order to help someone. While the majority of such cases involve warrantless entries into homes, the court determined that there is no logical reason to not extend the exception to vehicular stops. Additionally, looking to reasonableness, “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment,” the court stated “the benevolent act of trying to notify a driver that his life is in danger epitomizes reasonableness.” Thus, the court held that the emergency aid exception can be used to justify a traffic stop under proper exigent circumstances.
Then, the court held that the exception applied in this case and officers were justified in stopping Toussaint. The court stated that trial courts must examine objective facts of the circumstance in determining whether there was an objectively reasonable basis for believing exigency actually existed. The officers’ subjective motivations are never relevant in the determination. When the officers received what all parties agreed was a credible threat against Toussaint, who was located in a specific neighborhood and driving a specific vehicle, the court held it was reasonable for the officers to believe there was a serious threat on Toussaint’s life. Further, that exigency still existed at the time of the stop because the threat on Toussaint’s life had not ended within the 45 minutes it took officers to locate him and warn him. Since the stop was justified the search was proper and evidence was legally obtained because it would be contrary to the needs of law enforcement to force officers to ignore evidence found when they stop vehicles to render emergency aid.
In conclusion, the court held that the emergency aid exception extends to vehicular stops and that here, the stop of Toussaint was justified under this exception because there was a serious threat on his life. Accordingly, the court reversed the suppression order because the trial court was improper in granting the motion.