D.C. police officers need a refresher on when it's legal to enter a home without a warrant, according to a report issued Wednesday by the city's Police Complaints Board.
The board said it routinely receives complaints about officers entering homes — the complaints comprise nearly 14 percent of all those received since 2009 — and recommends the department should write a general order clarifying the exigent circumstances that would justify a warrantless search.
"Providing better training and developing a general order on warrantless entries for officers will aid them in carrying out their duties all the while protecting the rights of the public," said Philip K. Eure, director of the Office of Police Complaints.
The board does not believe the problem is systemic, however, noting that only a small number of complaints, 12 in all, appeared to "raise valid concerns about unlawful entries into private homes" by police. The agency annually receives hundreds of complaints, and in fiscal 2012 saw 574 formal complaints filed.
A police spokeswoman said the Metropolitan Police Department does not agree with the findings and recommendations of the report and provided a copy of police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's written response to a draft of the report.
"The MPD most certainly supports all efforts to reduce incidences of police misconduct; however MPD believes the OPC report inaccurately depicts a systemic problem, and that current policy and procedures are sufficient to prevent warrantless entries into private homes," Chief Lanier stated in the letter.
Of the 12 cases mentioned, the department noted that the office of police complaints has upheld five, with another three still under investigation. One case was deemed unfounded, one settled in mediation, one referred back to D.C. police and another withdrawn by the complainant.
The police union similarly condemned the report with Chairman Kristopher Baumann highlighting the relative few cases at issue that are among the millions of interactions police have with people every year.
Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers are not allowed to search a home without either the resident's permission or a search warrant unless under some sort of exigent circumstance. As far as what type of circumstances would qualify, the report states that "MPD appears to provide little guidance to its officers on the specific exceptions."
In one of the complaints described in the report, four police detectives searched a woman's home after it was disclosed a phone number they were tracking formerly belonged to the woman's daughter. The complaint was upheld and the officers involved each received letters of dereliction in their files.
The board noted that all the officers involved believed their actions had been justified.
While Chief Lanier wrote in her response that recruits attend a 46-hour course on search and seizure law which includes "lengthy reviews" of exigent circumstances, the report calls the training "a cursory overview" summarized on a one-page document that specifies only general categories of circumstances — such as danger to a third party or while in hot pursuit. It also noted the most recent case cited in training materials is from 2006, with two significant Supreme Court rulings on exigent circumstances issued in the meantime.
Police departments in three cities mentioned in the report — Seattle, Minneapolis and Tucson, Ariz. — all outline exigent circumstances in their general orders.
In addition to training and clarification in the general orders, the report suggested that training be required of officers disciplined for violating the Fourth Amendment, and that officers be required to document all entries into homes based on exigent circumstances.
Chief Lanier said that recommendation will be included as the department's general order on search warrants is reviewed.
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