436 U.S. 499 (1978), 76-1608, Michigan v. Tyler

Docket Nº:No. 76-1608
Citation:436 U.S. 499, 98 S.Ct. 1942, 56 L.Ed.2d 486
Party Name:Michigan v. Tyler
Case Date:May 31, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

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436 U.S. 499 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1942, 56 L.Ed.2d 486




No. 76-1608

United States Supreme Court

May 31, 1978

Argued January 10, 1978



Shortly before midnight on January 21, 1970, a fire broke out in respondents' furniture store, to which the local fire department responded. When the fire chief arrived at about 2 am., as the smoldering embers were being doused, the discovery of plastic containers of flammable liquid was reported to him, and after he had entered the building to examine the containers, he summoned a police detective to investigate possible arson. The detective took several pictures but ceased further investigation because of the smoke and steam. By 4 a.m., the fire had been extinguished, and the firefighters departed. The fire chief and detective removed the containers and left. At 8 a.m., the chief and his assistant returned for a cursory examination of the building. About an hour later, the assistant and the detective made another examination and removed pieces of evidence. On February 16, a member of the state police arson section took photographs at the store and made an inspection, which was followed by several other visits, at which time additional evidence and information were obtained. Respondents were subsequently charged with conspiracy to burn real property and other offenses. Evidence secured from the building and the testimony of the arson specialist were used at respondents' trial, which resulted in their convictions, notwithstanding their objections that no warrants or consent had been obtained for entries and inspection of the building and seizure of evidentiary items. The State Supreme Court reversed respondents' convictions and remanded the case for a new trial, concluding that

[once] the blaze [has been] extinguished and the firefighters have left the premises, a warrant is required to reenter and search the premises, unless there is consent or the premises have been abandoned.


1. Official entries to investigate the cause of a fire must adhere to the warrant procedures of the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth [98 S.Ct. 1945] Amendment. Since all the entries in this case were "without proper consent" and were not "authorized by a valid search warrant," each one is illegal unless it falls within one of the "certain carefully defined classes of cases" for which warrants are not mandatory. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 528-529. Pp. 504-509.

(a) There is no diminution in a person's reasonable expectation of privacy or in the protection of the Fourth Amendment simply because

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the official conducting the search is a firefighter, rather than a policeman, or because his purpose is to ascertain the cause of a fire, rather than to look for evidence of a crime. Searches for administrative purposes, like searches for evidence of crime, are encompassed by the Fourth Amendment. The showing of probable cause necessary to secure a warrant may vary with the object and intrusiveness of the search, but the necessity for the warrant persists. Pp. 505-506.

(b) To secure a warrant to investigate the cause of a fire, an official must show more than the bare fact that a fire occurred. The magistrate's duty is to assure that the proposed search will be reasonable, a determination that requires inquiry into the need for the intrusion, on the one hand, and the threat of disruption to the occupant, on the other. Pp. 506-508.

2. A burning building clearly presents an exigency of sufficient proportions to render a warrantless entry "reasonable," and, once in the building to extinguish a blaze, and for a reasonable time thereafter, firefighters may seize evidence of arson that is in plain view and investigate the causes of the fire. Thus, no Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations were committed by the firemen's entry to extinguish the blaze at respondents' store, nor by the fire chief's removal of the plastic containers. P. 509.

3. On the facts of this case, moreover, no warrant was necessary for the morning reentries of the building and seizure of evidence on January 22 after the 4 a.m. departure of the fire chief and other personnel, since these were a continuation of the first entry, which was temporarily interrupted by poor visibility. Pp. 510-511.

4. The post-January 22 entries were clearly detached from the initial exigency, and since these entries were made without warrants and without consent, they violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Evidence obtained from such entries must be excluded at respondents' retrial. P. 511.

399 Mich. 564, 250 N.W.2d 467, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, J., joined; in all but Part IV-A of which WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ., joined; in Parts I, III, and IV of which STEVENS, J., joined; and in Parts I, III, and IV-A of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 512. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 514. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 516. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondents, Loren Tyler and Robert Tompkins, were convicted in a Michigan trial court of conspiracy to burn real property in violation of Mich.Comp.Laws § 750.157a (1970).1 Various pieces of physical evidence and testimony based on personal observation, all obtained through unconsented and warrantless entries by police and fire officials onto the burned premises, were admitted into evidence at the respondents' trial. On appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the convictions, holding that "the warrantless searches were unconstitutional and that the evidence obtained was therefore inadmissible." 399 Mich. 564, 584, 250 N.W.2d 467, 477 (1977). We granted certiorari to consider the applicability of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to official entries onto fire-damaged premises. 434 U.S. 814.


Shortly before midnight on January 21, 1970, a fire broke out at Tyler's Auction, a furniture store in Oakland County, Mich. The building was leased to respondent Loren Tyler, who conducted the business in association with respondent Robert Tompkins. According to the trial testimony of various witnesses, the fire department responded to the fire and was "just watering down smoldering embers" when Fire Chief See arrived on the scene around 2 a.m. It was Chief See's responsibility "to determine the cause and make out all reports." Chief See was met by Lt. Lawson, who informed him that two

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plastic containers of flammable liquid had been found in the building. Using portable lights, they entered the gutted store, which was filled with smoke and steam, to examine the containers. Concluding that the fire "could possibly have been an arson," Chief See called Police Detective Webb, who arrived around 3:30 a.m. Detective Webb took several pictures of the containers and of the interior of the store, but finally abandoned his efforts because of the smoke and steam. Chief See briefly "[l]ooked throughout the rest of the building to see if there was any further evidence, to determine what the cause of the fire was." By 4 a.m., the fire had been extinguished and the firefighters departed. See and Webb took the two containers to the fire station, where they were turned over to Webb for safekeeping. There was neither consent nor a warrant for any of these entries into the building, nor for the removal of the containers. The respondents challenged the introduction of these containers at trial, but abandoned their objection in the State Supreme Court. 399 Mich. at 570, 250 N.W.2d at 470.

Four hours after he had left Tyler's Auction, Chief See returned with Assistant Chief Somerville, whose job was to determine the "origin of all fires that occur within the Township." The fire had been extinguished and the building was empty. After a cursory examination, they left, and Somerville returned with Detective Webb around 9 a.m. In Webb's words, they discovered suspicious "burn marks in the carpet, which [Webb] could not see earlier that morning, because of the heat, steam, and the darkness." They also found "pieces of tape, with burn marks, on the stairway." After leaving the building to obtain tools, they returned and removed pieces of the carpet and sections of the stairs to preserve these bits of evidence suggestive of a fuse trail. Somerville also searched through the rubble "looking for any other signs or evidence that showed how this fire was caused." Again, there was neither consent nor a warrant for these entries and seizures.

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Both at trial and on appeal, the respondents objected to the introduction of evidence thereby obtained.

On February 16, Sergeant Hoffman of the Michigan State Police Arson Section returned to Tyler's Auction to take photographs.2 During this visit or during another at about the same time, he checked the circuit breakers, had someone inspect the furnace, and had a television repairman examine the remains of several television sets found in the ashes. He also found a piece of fuse. Over the course of his several visits, Hoffman secured physical evidence and formed opinions that played a substantial role at trial in establishing arson as the cause of the fire and in refuting the respondents' testimony about what furniture had been lost. His entries into the building were without warrants or Tyler's consent, and were for the sole purpose "of making an investigation and seizing...

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