United States v. Maxwell, No. 22-2135 (7th Cir. November 13, 2023)

In a recent opinion, the Seventh Circuit (the “Court”) determined that exigent circumstances justified police officers’ warrantless entry into Tyrone Maxwell’s apartment and that the evidence discovered as a result was admissible.

Entry & Search

The timeline that led to the officers’ entry begins in August 2019 when residents of a secure apartment building buzzed in two men claiming to be visiting another resident. Shortly after, the residents heard gunshots. The police were called. When police officers arrived, they saw bullet holes in the door of Apartment 7, shell casings on the stairs, and an empty holster.

When no one from inside Apartment 7 responded to the officers, they tried opening the door manually. They eventually used a sledgehammer, which allowed entry by damaging the door and smashing the deadbolt. At that point, ten minutes had passed since the officer’s arrival.

Police entered the apartment and immediately smelled (and found) cannabis. One officer turned left down a hallway, entered a bedroom, and opened a closet door to find more cannabis. The officer then went back to the living room, opened another closet door, and found a rifle behind some clothes. A money counter was openly visible on the living room table.  

This search lasted no more than ninety seconds.

Eventually, Defendant Tyrone Maxwell arrived and confirmed Apartment 7 was his residence. A warrant was obtained, and another search revealed two guns, ten pounds of marijuana, and over $75,000 in cash.

Defendant’s Charges and Motion to Suppress

Defendant was indicted by a grand jury with the following: (i) possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, (ii) possession of firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and (iii) possession of firearms as a felon. He moved to suppress all evidence on the grounds that there was no emergency that justified the warrantless entry.

The district court denied Maxwell’s motion to suppress, noting the officers reasonably presumed that, because there were bullet holes in the door, casings on the floor, and a gun holster, there could be a wounded person inside Apartment 7. The district court ultimately found that “the officers limited their search to areas where an injured person in need of assistance may have been hiding.”

On Appeal

On appeal, Maxwell focused on arguing the officers acted unreasonably because: (1) they had no reason to believe an injured person was inside the apartment; (2) the use of a sledgehammer for entry was unreasonable; and (3) any exigent circumstances ended once the door was opened.

Objectively Reasonable Belief of an Exigent Circumstance

On the first assertion, the Court recognized that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless entry in exigent circumstances. Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006) (requiring an “objectively reasonable basis for believing” warrantless entry is necessary “to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant”).

Defendant argued that the facts known by the responding officers at the time of their arrival do not suggest that someone was home and thus there was no reasonable basis to believe someone was inside and/or injured. For example, the officers called out and no one responded. However, the Seventh Circuit has upheld warrantless entries when police do not receive a response. See, e.g., United States v. Schmidt, 700 F.3d 934, 936–37 (7th Cir. 2012).

The Court rejected this argument because the approach “might require police to abandon those too wounded to ask for help.” With all the evidence taken together, the officers justifiably inferred that a gunshot victim may have been inside.

Sledgehammer Not an Unreasonable Means of Entry

Maxwell’s second claim argued that the officers’ forced entry was unreasonable. See Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 406 (stating the “manner of entry” must be reasonable). Police must follow the “knock-and-announce rule” and must not cause unnecessary destruction of property.  See Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 929 (1995); United States v. Ramirez, 523 U.S. 65, 71 (1998).

In this case, the police complied with the rule. The bullet holes, shells, and gun holster created an exigent circumstance, and the police knocked and announced their presence, tried to manually enter, and then turned to the sledgehammer. There is ample case law to support that a battering ram or sledgehammer may be the best option to breach a locked door. See, e.g., United States v. Singer, 943 F.2d 758, 760, 764 (7th Cir. 1991); Heft v. Moore, 351 F.3d 278, 280 (7th Cir. 2003).

That does not mean a sledgehammer is always a reasonable means of entry. It may be unreasonable based on the circumstances, including if the door is unlocked, manual force is sufficient, or the police have a key. See United States v. Jones, 214 F.3d 836, 837 (7th Cir. 2000); Sutterfield v. City of Milwaukee, 751 F.3d 542, 564 (7th Cir. 2014); Gaetjens v. City of Loves Park, 4 F.4th 487, 490 (7th Cir. 2021).

Emergency Does Not End at the Door

Maxwell’s final argument was that police were not permitted to search the entire apartment because the exigency “evaporated” when they opened the door or, at the very least, that exigency should have confined them to the area in front of the door.

Indeed, when police enter a home, their search is limited “to the circumstances that justified it,” and police can only search for where an injured person might be found. United States v. Arch, 7 F.3d 1300, 1304 (7th Cir. 1993). While undertaking that search, “officers do not have to avert their eyes from any evidence in plain view when they are looking in those places.” Maxwell, 2023 WL 7487049, at *11 (citing United States v. Gonzalez, 555 F.3d 579, 582 (7th Cir. 2009).

Here, police searched for no more than 90 seconds for injured individuals. They searched in two large closets where a person could reasonably hide and then left. While doing so, they saw contraband and weapons that led to the search warrant. Considering the full series of events and the short time frame, the exigency did not evaporate when the officers opened the front door. The officers properly “tailored their search to that exigency.”

Notably, body-camera footage also shows officers opening cabinets too small for a person to hide in. However, the defense counsel rejected the government’s offer to introduce this into evidence and address this at trial. United States v. Maxwell, No. 22-2135, 2023 WL 7487049, at *11 (7th Cir. Nov. 13, 2023).

Defendant attempted to limit the exigency to the area in front of the door. In support, Maxwell proposed two hypotheticals: (1) the hypothetical victim would have remained near the front door; or (2) the hypothetical victim would have left visible blood if they tried to move from the door. In both, there would be immediate, visible evidence of an emergency or victim. Without that, Maxwell asserted the emergency ended when the door opened.

However, in the case cited by Defendant, the exigency ended because the police found someone unconscious. United States v. Brand, 556 F.2d 1312, 1318 (5th Cir. 1977). Here, no one was found, and the search continued to reasonably investigate where a victim might hide. Instead, the Seventh Circuit held that “[p]olice do not have to stop looking for wounded occupants just because they do not see blood or a body in one place.” Maxwell, 2023 WL 7487049, at *13.

Conclusion & Key Takeaways

Ultimately, the police had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an injured person was inside Apartment 7. The officers’ forced entry and limited search were justified and the district court’s denial was upheld.

All in all, the officers took the correct steps based on the information available to them and the case provides these key takeaways:

  • A warrantless search based on an emergency/exigent circumstance should be limited to where a person might be located.
  • If there is no answer to a “knock and announce,” there may still be a reasonable basis for entry if the circumstances suggest someone could be hiding, unconscious, or unable to respond.
  • A reasonable manner for entry will fluctuate based on the circumstances. If the door is locked and there is no less-intrusive means of entry, a sledgehammer will get the job done.

Authored by:

not pictured: Jonathan Coleman