Michigan v. Clifford

Decision Date11 January 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-357,82-357
Citation104 S.Ct. 641,464 U.S. 287,78 L.Ed.2d 477
PartiesMICHIGAN, Petitioner v. Raymond CLIFFORD and Emma Jean Clifford
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents' private residence was damaged by an early morning fire while they were out of town. Firefighters extinguished the blaze at 7:04 a.m., at which time all fire officials and police left the premises. Five hours later, a team of arson investigators arrived at the residence for the first time to investigate the cause of the blaze. They found a work crew on the scene boarding up the house and pumping water out of the basement. The investigators learned that respondents had been notified of the fire and had instructed their insurance agent to send the crew to secure the house. Nevertheless, the investigators entered the residence and conducted an extensive search without obtaining either consent or an administrative warrant. Their search began in the basement where they found two Coleman fuel cans and a crock pot attached to an electrical timer. The investigators determined that the fire had been caused by the crock pot and timer and had been set deliberately. After seizing and marking the evidence found in the basement, the investigators extended their search to the upper portions of the house where they found additional evidence of arson. Respondents were charged with arson and moved to suppress all the evidence seized in the warrantless search on the ground that it was obtained in violation of their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Michigan trial court denied the motion on the ground that exigent circumstances justified the search. On interlocutory appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that no exigent circumstances existed and reversed.

Held: The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Justice POWELL, joined by Justice BRENNAN, Justice WHITE, and Justice MARSHALL, concluded that where reasonable expectations of privacy remain in fire-damaged premises, administrative searches into the cause and origin of a fire are subject to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment absent consent or exigent circumstances. There are especially strong expectations of privacy in a private residence and respondents here retained significant privacy interests in their fire-damaged home. Because the warrantless search of the basement and upper areas of respondents' home was authorized neither by consent nor exigent circumstances, the evidence seized in that search was obtained in violation of respondents' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and must be suppressed. Pp. 29 -299.

(a) Where a warrant is necessary to search fire-damaged premises, an administrative warrant suffices if the primary object of the search is to determine the cause and origin of the fire, but a criminal search warrant, obtained upon a showing of probable cause, is required if the primary object of the search is to gather evidence of criminal activity. Pp. 291-295.

(b) The search here was not a continuation of an earlier search, and the privacy interests in the residence made the delay between the fire and the midday search unreasonable absent a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances. Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 98 S.Ct. 1942, 56 L.Ed.2d 486, distinguished. Because the cause of the fire was known upon search of the basement, the search of the upper portions of the house could only have been a search to gather evidence of arson requiring a criminal warrant absent exigent circumstances. Even if the basement search had been a valid administrative search, it would not have justified the upstairs search, since as soon as it had been determined that the fire originated in the basement, the scope of the search was limited to the basement area. Pp. 296-298.

Justice STEVENS concluded that the search of respondents' home was unreasonable in contravention of the Fourth Amendment because the investigators made no effort to provide fair advance notice of the inspection to respondents. A nonexigent, forceful, warrantless entry cannot be reasonable unless the investigator has made some effort to give the owner significant notice to be present while the investigation is made. Pp. 303- 305.

Janice M. Joyce Bartee, Detroit, Mich., pro hac vici, for petitioner.

K. Preston Oade, Jr., Southfield, Mich., for respondents.

Justice POWELL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which Justices BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL joined.

This case presents questions as to the authority of arson investigators, in the absence of exigent circumstances or consent, to enter a private residence without a warrant to investigate the cause of a recent fire.

I

Respondents, Raymond and Emma Jean Clifford, were arrested and charged with arson in connection with a fire at their private residence. At the preliminary examination held to establish probable cause for the alleged offense, the State introduced various pieces of physical evidence, most of which was obtained through a warrantless and nonconsensual search of the Clifford's fire-damaged home. Respondents moved to suppress this evidence on the ground that it was obtained in violation of their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. That motion was denied and respondents were bound over for trial. Before trial, they again moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search. The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing and denied the motion on the ground that exigent circumstances justified the search. The court certified its evidentiary ruling for interlocutory appeal and the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed.

That court held that there were no exigent circumstances justifying the search. Instead, it found that the warrantless entry and search of the Clifford residence was conducted pursuant to a policy of the Arson Division of the Detroit Fire Department that sanctioned such searches as long as the owner was not present, the premises were open to trespass, and the search occurred within a reasonable time of the fire. The Court of Appeals held that this policy was inconsistent with Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 98 S.Ct. 1942, 56 L.Ed.2d 486 (1978), and that the warrantless nonconsensual search of the Cliffords' residence violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. We granted certiorari to clarify doubt that appears to exist as to the application of our decision in Tyler.

II

In the early morning hours of October 18, 1980, a fire erupted at the Clifford home. The Cliffords were out of town on a camping trip at the time. The fire was reported to the Detroit Fire Department, and fire units arrived on the scene at about 5:42 a.m. The fire was extinguished and all fire officials and police left the premises at 7:04 a.m.

At 8:00 a.m. on the morning of the fire, Lieutenant Beyer, a fire investigator with the arson section of the Detroit Fire Department, received instructions to investigate the Clifford fire. He was informed that the Fire Department suspected arson. Because he had other assignments, Lieutenant Beyer did not proceed immediately to the Clifford residence. He and his partner finally arrived at the scene of the fire about 1:00 p.m. on October 18.

When they arrived, they found a work crew on the scene. The crew was boarding up the house and pumping some six inches of water out of the basement. A neighbor told the investigators that he had called Clifford and had been instructed to request the Cliffords' insurance agent to send a boarding crew out to secure the house. The neighbor also advised that the Cliffords did not plan to return that day. While the investigators waited for the water to be pumped out, they found a Coleman fuel can in the driveway that was seized and marked as evidence.1

By 1:30 p.m., the water had been pumped out of the basement and Lieutenant Beyer and his partner, without obtaining consent or an administrative warrant, entered the Clifford residence and began their investigation into the cause of the fire. Their search began in the basement and they quickly confirmed that the fire had originated there beneath the basement stairway. They detected a strong odor of fuel throughout the basement, and found two more Coleman fuel cans beneath the stairway. As they dug through the debris, the investigators also found a crock pot with attached wires leading to an electrical timer that was plugged into an outlet a few feet away. The timer was set to turn on at approximately 3:45 a.m. and to turn back off at approximately 9:00 a.m. It had stopped somewhere between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. All of this evidence was seized and marked.

After determining that the fire had originated in the basement, Lieutenant Beyer and his partner searched the remainder of the house. The warrantless search that followed was extensive and thorough. The investigators called in a photographer to take pictures throughout the house. They searched through drawers and closets and found them full of old clothes. They inspected the rooms and noted that there were nails on the walls but no pictures. They found wiring and cassettes for a video tape machine but no machine.

Respondents moved to exclude all exhibits and testimony based on the basement and upstairs searches on the ground that they were searches to gather evidence of arson, that they were conducted without a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances, and that they therefore were per se unreasonable under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Petitioner, on the other hand, argues that the entire search was reasonable and should be exempt from the warrant requirement.

III

In its petition for certiorari, the State does not challenge the state court's finding that there were no exigent circumstances justifying the search of the Clifford home. Instead, it asks us to exempt from the warrant requirement all administrative investigations into the cause and origin of a fire. We...

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