496 F.2d 793 (3rd Cir. 1974), 73-1720, Steigler v. Anderson

Docket Nº:73-1720.
Citation:496 F.2d 793
Party Name:Herbert F. STEIGLER, Appellant, v. Raymond W. ANDERSON, Warden, Delaware Correctional Institution, Appellee.
Case Date:April 18, 1974
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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496 F.2d 793 (3rd Cir. 1974)

Herbert F. STEIGLER, Appellant,


Raymond W. ANDERSON, Warden, Delaware Correctional Institution, Appellee.

No. 73-1720.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

April 18, 1974

Argued Jan. 9, 1974.

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William E. Taylor, Jr., Henry A. Heiman, Steven R. Karlsen, Wilmington, Del., for appellant.

Jerome O. Herlihy, Chief Deputy Atty. Gen., Richard R. Wier, Jr., State Prosecutor, Wilmington, Del., for appellee.

Before ADAMS, HUNTER and WEIS, Circuit Judges.


JAMES HUNTER, III, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Herbert F. Steigler was convicted in the Superior Court of Delaware on three counts of first degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in connection with a fire in the home of appellant on October 19, 1968. On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Steigler v. State, 277 A.2d 662 (1971). Appellant filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, and in a brief order, the Supreme Court vacated appellant's death penalty. Steigler v. Delaware, 408 U.S. 939, 92 S.Ct. 2872, 33 L.Ed.2d 760, citing Stewart v. Massachusetts, 408 U.S. 845, 92 S.Ct. 2845, 33 L.Ed.2d 744 (1972). Proceeding in forma pauperis, appellant petitioned the United States District Court for the District of Delaware for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court denied the petition and we affirm, 360 F.Supp. 1286.

In the early morning hours of October 19, 1968, fire erupted at appellant's home in Deerhurst, New Castle County, Delaware. Appellant's wife summoned the aid of a nearby fire company which responded promptly and brought the fire under control, but not before appellant's daughter, mother-in-law and father-in-law had died. During the course of extinguishing

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the blaze, attempting to rescue persons trapped in the house, securing the premises and investigating for the causes of the fire, various firemen, including Deputy Fire Marshall Richard Lynch, discovered several items of physical evidence of arson. Openly situated throughout the house were numerous glass containers, some broken and some filled with gasoline. Sections of the rug upon which several of the containers had been placed were soaked with gasoline. Surmising from this and other evidence that the fire was the result of arson, and having assisted in removing at least one corpse, Lynch placed a call to the New Castle County Fireboard requesting that the Delaware State Police be dispatched to the scene. Shortly thereafter Sgt. Daniel Bramble of the Delaware State Police and several of his colleagues arrived and, without a warrant, proceeded to remove the physical evidence of arson discovered by Lynch and the various firemen. The police also took pictures of some of this evidence and the surrounding area from which they were removed. These photos and physical evidence were admitted into evidence at trial over appellant's objection. Appellant contends that since the police did not obtain a search warrant, his rights under the fourth amendment were violated and hence the evidence in question was inadmissible.

Sgt. Bramble of the Delaware State Police interviewed appellant on four separate occasions between October 19 (morning of the fire) and October 24, before charging him with arson and murder. On none of these occasions was appellant informed of his Miranda rights, which appellant contends violated his fifth amendment rights.


While searches and seizures must generally be undertaken by state officials only after obtaining a search warrant, 1 the Supreme Court has recognized a number of situations in which a warrantless search may be lawful. 2 In each of these situations the Supreme Court found exigent circumstances rendering imperative official action without first obtaining a warrant. We believe a similar situation existed in the present case.

Although it is not clear whether appellant concedes this, we think it is beyond question that firemen have a right to enter a premise to suppress a fire without having to obtain a warrant. 3 We simply do not think that a 'search' in the fourth amendment sense occurs when firemen enter a burning home to suppress a fire. 4 Moreover, seeking out and rescuing trapped occupants, ventilating the building after the fire is brought under control, searching for any smoldering fires and cleaning up prior to departing all involve proper fire fighting functions which cannot reasonably be viewed as searches under the fourth amendment.

In any event, even if such actions of firemen were searches under the fourth amendment, we think no warrant

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was required since a more exigent circumstance is difficult to imagine. 5 We think it readily follows from this that any evidence of arson seen by firemen in plain view while performing these functions may be seized without first obtaining a warrant. See e.g., Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 464-473, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564 (1971); Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 236, 88 S.Ct. 992, 19 L.Ed.2d 1067 (1968); Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23, 42-43, 83 S.Ct. 1623, 10 L.Ed.2d 726 (1963).

Not all of the evidence objected to by appellant, however, was seen by the firemen during the course of rescuing trapped occupants, suppressing the fire and securing the premises. Some of the evidence was found while Lynch conducted his investigation into the cause the fire. 6

Although Lynch was authorized by statute to investigate 'the origin or circumstances' 7 of any fire in Delaware, we recognize this does not necessarily end our inquiry. Regardless of state authority, the acts of state officials are judged by federal standards when fourth amendment violations are claimed. E.g., Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 223, 80 S.Ct. 1437, 4 L.Ed.2d 1669 (1960). Thus, even though Lynch had authority under state law to investigate the cause of the fire, the question remains whether the fourth amendment required that he first obtain a search warrant.

Appellant relies heavily on the companion cases of Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930 (1967) and See v. Seattle, 387 U.S. 541, 87 S.Ct. 1737, 18 L.Ed.2d 943 (1967), in which the Supreme Court held that the fourth amendment forbids warrantless area inspections for violations of municipal housing and business code provisions. We are not faced, however, with the situation of a fire marshall inspecting a home for violations of fire code provisions. Nor are we faced with the situation (and therefore we express no opinion as to the validity) of a fire marshall investigating, without a warrant, the cause of a fire several hours or days after the fire. 8

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The present situation is markedly different. Here there was an emergency situation which Camara explicitly exempted from its warrant requirement. 9 Unlike Camara, there was a 'compelling urgency (for Lynch) to inspect at a particular time (and) on a particular day.' 10 The need to investigate promptly for the cause of the fire is very much interrelated with the necessity of suppressing the blaze. The rationale for dispensing with a warrant in such situations has been cogently summarized by the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Green:

'Unlike the area inspection, which does not focus on a particular premises and is conducted without reference to knowledge of a fire hazard at a given location, the investigation of an actual fire is logically and factually inseparable from the fireman's job of suppressing the blaze. The ordinary fireman is not an expert in the cause of fires. He cannot determine, after he douses the blaze, whether the danger is past or merely hidden, awaiting only a fresh supply of oxygen to set it off again with perhaps disastrous results.

'A fire might have been caused by any of a myriad of conditions that would not be terminated by simply putting out the flame-- e.g., a faulty appliance, defective or worn out electrical wiring, or careless storage of flammable materials. Where the existence of a gravely dangerous condition has already manifested itself in one fire, it would be the height of folly for the firemen to enter, suppress the flames, and leave the premises without assurance that they would not required to return, perhaps within minutes, to do it all again.

'Critical to the Supreme Court's imposition of the warrant requirement in Camara and in See was the recognition that there is nothing in the nature of a routine area inspection that requires immediate entry into a particular structure in the area at a specific time. There is, however, such a necessity in the case of a fire. Until someone expert in the cause of fires arrives, inspects the scene, and determines that the fire has been completely extinguished, the firemen cannot reasonably depart. The imposition of a warrant requirement in such circumstances would immobilize the entire apparatus of fire protection. The absurdity of requiring the fire investigator to secure a warrant in order to search for the fire's cause is self evident.' 11

We fully agree, 12 and thus conclude that Lynch's warrantless investigation during and immediately following the suppression of the fire was reasonable and justified by exigent circumstances. 13

Appellant nonetheless argues that Sgt. Bramble and the other police officers were required to obtain a warrant prior to seizing and removing the containers and other items discovered by Lynch and the other firemen. We do not agree. The purpose of the warrant requirement is to insure prior judicial authorization of intrusions into areas in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. 14 When Lynch proceeded to investigate the cause of the fire he was

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clothed with a law...

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