570 F.3d 546 (4th Cir. 2009), 08-1782, Hunsberger v. Wood

Docket Nº:08-1782.
Citation:570 F.3d 546
Opinion Judge:WILKINSON, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Mark J. HUNSBERGER; Cheryl A. Hunsberger, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. J.A. WOOD, Deputy Sheriff, Botetourt County Sheriff's Office, Defendant-Appellant, and William W. Blessard; John Doe, Defendants.
Attorney:Elizabeth Kay Dillon, Guynn, Memmer & Dillon, PC, Salem, Virginia, for Appellant. Melvin Edward Williams, Grimes & Williams, PC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellees. Terry N. Grimes, Grimes & Williams, PC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before WILKINSON and TRAXLER, Circuit Judges, and C. ARLEN BEAM, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, sitting by designation. Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge WILKINSON wrote the opinion, in which Judge TRAXLER and Senior Judge BEAM j...
Case Date:June 29, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 546

570 F.3d 546 (4th Cir. 2009)

Mark J. HUNSBERGER; Cheryl A. Hunsberger, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

J.A. WOOD, Deputy Sheriff, Botetourt County Sheriff's Office, Defendant-Appellant,

and

William W. Blessard; John Doe, Defendants.

No. 08-1782.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

June 29, 2009

Argued: May 15, 2009.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED:

Elizabeth Kay Dillon, Guynn, Memmer & Dillon, PC, Salem, Virginia, for Appellant.

Melvin Edward Williams, Grimes & Williams, PC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Terry N. Grimes, Grimes & Williams, PC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellees.

Before WILKINSON and TRAXLER, Circuit Judges, and C. ARLEN BEAM, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, sitting by designation.

Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge WILKINSON wrote the opinion, in which Judge TRAXLER and Senior Judge BEAM joined.

OPINION

WILKINSON, Circuit Judge.

Sergeant J.A. Wood appeals the district court's denial of qualified immunity in this civil suit arising out of Wood's warrantless entry into the plaintiffs' home. Because the objective circumstances confronted by defendant on the night in question suggested that plaintiffs' home was being vandalized and that a missing teenage girl was in the house and in need of assistance, the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment exigent circumstances doctrine. We thus reverse the judgment of the district court and grant the defendant qualified immunity in this case.

I.

At 10:17 p.m. on February 2, 2007, a woman named Charlene Klik called 911 to report suspicious activity near her home in Roanoke, which is located in Botetourt County, Virginia. Klik had noticed a number of cars coming and going from the home of her neighbors, Mark and Cheryl Hunsberger. Because the lights in the house were off and she had not seen her neighbors in a couple of days, Klik thought that the Hunsbergers might be on vacation. She saw teenagers getting in and out of the cars in front of the home and became concerned that vandalism or burglary might be taking place.

In response to Klik's 911 call, the Botetourt County Sheriff's Office dispatched Sergeant J.A. Wood and Deputy Sheriff Jody Edwards to the scene. After Edwards briefly spoke to Klik, the two officers observed the home and the surrounding area from their cars for several minutes. The officers saw that some of the lights were on in the house and two cars were parked in front. Seeing and hearing nothing suspicious, they left the scene at approximately 10:37 p.m.

Contrary to Klik's belief, Mark and Cheryl Hunsberger were at home that night, as were their three children: their son Zach, then eighteen years of age; their son LH, then sixteen; and their daughter JH, then ten.1 Five friends of the two Hunsberger boys were present as well, including NW, a minor girl who was then sixteen. Between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m., the Hunsbergers put JH to bed and then watched television in the garage until approximately

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11:00 p.m., when they went to bed.

The teenage children and their friends, who had earlier been at another friend's house, arrived at the Hunsberger home in two cars around 9:00 p.m. The teenagers went to the basement, where they watched television and played card games. Some of them drank beer and vodka. While at the Hunsberger home, several of the teenagers came outside the house at various times to smoke cigarettes and to retrieve items from their cars.

At approximately 11:00 p.m., the mother of one of the friends drove to the house to pick up her daughter; she also gave N.W. a ride to another friend's home where NW's car was parked. N.W. then drove back to the Hunsberger home in her own vehicle. Around midnight, Zach and another boy, Aaron Cooper, briefly left to go purchase beer.

The earlier visit by Edwards and Wood had not allayed Klik's fears, and after seeing additional activity at the house she again called 911 at 12:10 a.m. Edwards and Wood again were dispatched to investigate. While sitting in his vehicle, Wood observed a young man come into the garage, turn on the lights, turn them off again, and reenter the house. Edwards spoke to Klik, who said she was worried about vandalism or burglary at the Hunsberger home, and Edwards relayed Klik's fears to Wood. The officers noticed that a third car, the one driven by NW, was now parked in front of the Hunsberger home. All three cars partially blocked the road.

The officers decided to ask the occupants of the Hunsberger home to move their cars and avoid disturbing the neighbors. They each pulled their cars into the Hunsberger home's driveway, at which point they noticed the lights inside the house turn off. Edwards and Wood exited their vehicles, approached the house, and rang the home's doorbell twenty-five or thirty times. No one came to the door.

Plaintiffs say they never heard the doorbell. The Hunsberger boys and their friends, however, did notice the officers' arrival. When the officers approached the house, Zach and one of his friends, Matt Deane, exited the house through the garage and ran to another friend's home. LH went to his bedroom. N.W. and two of the other friends hid under the stairwell in the basement.

Walking back to their cars, the two officers noticed that the previously closed side door to the garage, which Zach and Matt Deane had just run through to avoid the officers, was now open. Wood stepped into the garage and knocked on the door inside that led into the house. No one answered. Edwards and Wood returned to their cars.

The officers decided to contact the dispatcher to identify the owners of the vehicles in front of the house using the cars' license plate information. The dispatcher routed calls to each of the car owners to Wood's cell phone. Wood spoke to several parents including William Blessard, NW's stepfather. Each agreed to pick up his or her respective vehicle.

It struck Wood as suspicious that the occupants of the home had turned off the lights when the officers approached, had refused to answer the door, and had apparently fled the home. Given Klik's claim that the Hunsbergers might be out of town, Wood became concerned about the possibility of vandalism. Wood also took into consideration the fact that two weeks earlier a vacant house nearby had burned down as the apparent result of unauthorized use.

Blessard was the first parent to arrive. Blessard told Wood that N.W. was supposed to be sleeping over at a friend's

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house, and that he did not know why her car was at the home of the Hunsbergers, whom he did not know. Blessard called NW's cellphone several times, but she did not answer. He became worried for the welfare of his stepdaughter.

Wood suggested to Blessard that they see if anyone would come to the Hunsberger home's door if they rang the doorbell. Walking towards the front door, they passed the garage, when Wood heard something being knocked over. Wood stepped inside the garage and then heard the door that connected the garage to the house's basement shut and lock. Blessard followed Wood into the garage, walked down the steps to the basement door, knocked repeatedly, and shouted NW's name. No one came to the door, and Blessard's apprehensions rose.

Wood then approached the door inside the garage that opened into the first floor of the home. He discovered it was unlocked. The series of strange happenings had increased Wood's fears of vandalism as well as his concern for the welfare of Blessard's stepdaughter. At that point, Wood decided to enter the home. Wood proceeded into the kitchen area and loudly announced that he was from the sheriff's office and that anyone in the home who was hiding should reveal himself. Blessard followed Wood into the home.

The lights were off in the home. Using his flashlight, Wood searched the first floor of the home and found no one present. He then went...

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