Parkhurst v. Trapp

Decision Date23 February 1996
Docket NumberNo. 95-3232,95-3232
Citation77 F.3d 707
PartiesCharles PARKHURST, Appellant, v. Officer Edward TRAPP, Kilbuck Township Police Dept.; Officer Craig Cannella, Kilbuck Township Police Dept.; Chief Jack Lennon, Kilbuck Township Police Dept., Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 93-399).

Mark A. Eck, Paul A. Robinson (argued), Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebeneck & Eck, Pittsburgh, PA, for Appellees.

Michael L. Rosenfield (argued), Pittsburgh, PA, for Appellant.

Before: STAPLETON, SAROKIN and ROSENN, Circuit Judges.


ROSENN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal primarily raises an interesting question concerning the temporal extent of the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment permitting a warrantless search of a person's home. Although the Fourth Amendment to the federal constitution has in recent years suffered considerable battering, the amendment still remains intact as a historic bulwark protecting a person's home from unreasonable search for the discovery of papers and records that might be used to convict the owner of crime.

The seeds for that amendment were planted in England in the 18th century when agents of the Crown executed a general warrant, naming no particular person or place, and searched the house of John Wilkes, a printer and publisher of a publication known as the North Briton. The North Briton, especially issue no. 45, denounced the incumbent government. In an effort to obtain evidence that Wilkes was the printer and publisher, the King's agents acting under a general warrant entered Wilkes' house and indiscriminately seized his papers. Wilkes sued the perpetrators for entering his dwelling, searching for, examining and seizing his papers.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is in part a response to the outcry and reverberations generated by the Wilkes episode. In succinct but stentorian terms, the Fourth Amendment provides that no searches and seizures of personal property may occur without a warrant lawfully issued which particularly describes the place to be searched. 1 Courts especially have been vigilant in cases involving a citizen's papers, in which people usually have the greatest interest in privacy. See, Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 629, 6 S.Ct. 524, 531-32, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886). Despite the Fourth Amendment's long and historic tradition, police officers, caught up in the heat of the chase, sometimes disregard warrant requirements.

The case before us represents one of these instances. Without a warrant, and with no attempt to secure one, three police officers entered a citizen's home. In his absence, they spent several hours searching and rummaging through his private papers and effects, seizing numerous items. The citizen, Charles Parkhurst, in response filed this action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking damages for the violation of his civil rights. Because we hold that no exigent circumstances excused these officers from complying with the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, we reverse the judgment of the district court entering summary judgment for the police officers. We remand with directions to enter summary judgment for the plaintiff on the defendants' liability, and to proceed with a trial as to the amount of damages, if any, suffered.


The undisputed facts are that plaintiff Charles Parkhurst is estranged from his wife, Melanie, and they have begun divorce proceedings. In the meantime, they have a state court-ordered joint custody arrangement of their three-year old son. On July 17, 1991, Melanie arrived at Charles Parkhurst's residence to pick up their son for her turn at custody. No one responded when she honked the horn. Melanie then went to the side door and knocked, at which point the plaintiff opened the door, told her in an obscene manner to leave, and slammed the door. She began to leave, when her husband fired a gun in her direction.

Melanie immediately reported the incident to the police, expressing concern for the safety of their son Dylan. She stated that she believed her husband and his mother Sally were hiding the child, and that she, Melanie, feared for the child's safety.

Based on this information, Edward Trapp and Craig Cannella, the two police officers listed as defendants, went to plaintiff's residence to question him at approximately 7:00 P.M. When they knocked, he answered the door. Officer Cannella then directed the plaintiff to put his hands on the wall. The plaintiff and the defendants disagree as to whether the officer drew his gun as he made this request. Plaintiff then slammed the door and ran upstairs. The officers broke down the door and followed him inside to his bedroom. Parkhurst admitted firing his gun at his wife, and told the officers that the gun he had used was in the nightstand. The officers removed the gun and also found in the nightstand three knives and several live rounds of ammunition. They asked plaintiff if he had any other weapons. When he directed them to the bedroom closet, they discovered four more guns and 1,048 rounds of ammunition.

The officers then performed a protective sweep of the entire house. They stated that their purpose in doing so was fear for their own safety, because they did not know if Sally and the child Dylan might be hiding in the house, and thought that Sally might be armed and dangerous. They did not find either the grandmother or the child but they did confiscate several other weapons. In addition, they found a note which indicated that Sally had taken Dylan away. The officers then arrested plaintiff and had him arraigned.

The following day, July 18, at 11 a.m., Melanie came to the police station to file a missing persons report on her son Dylan. The same officers, as well as Chief of Police Jack Lennon, took the information. The officers worked on the report until 1 p.m. At that point, without attempting to secure a search warrant, the officers returned to the plaintiff's residence. He was still incarcerated at this point, and the officers did not attempt to question him about the child's whereabouts.

Again, the officers searched the house. Their stated purpose for this search was to find anything that might help them find the child. They took over sixty items from the home, including address books, checkbooks, slips of paper containing names, addresses, or notes, credit card information, greeting cards, letters to Sally Parkhurst, prescription information, photographs of Sally and Dylan, several nude photos, 2 videotapes, and copies of the criminal record of Melanie's new boyfriend. The police then questioned Charles Parkhurst, and through the information he had given, and one of the addresses they had found in the search, traced Dylan and his grandmother to California.

Charles Parkhurst pled guilty to aggravated assault and concealing the whereabouts of a child. He then filed a pro se Section 1983 action against the police department and the individual officers involved in the search of his premises for civil rights violations based on both searches of his home. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the police department, as the departmental entity could not be sued under Section 1983. The court also entered summary judgment against plaintiff on his Fifth, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment claims, 3 leaving only plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims. The court determined that the exigent circumstances of July 17 permitted the officers to make their initial search of the house on that day. However, it denied summary judgment to the police officers on the July 18 search, because it was not convinced that the circumstances were exigent. Plaintiff does not appeal any of these rulings.

The police officers then submitted affidavits stating that two hours had passed between Melanie's July 18 report and their search, that those full two hours had been spent in preparation of the report, that it would have taken another two hours to apply for a search warrant, and that because of the youth of the child they did not want to wait. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. Upon receiving this information, the district court granted summary judgment for defendants with respect to the July 18 search, holding that there had been no actionable Fourth Amendment violation. Consequently, the court denied plaintiff's motion. Plaintiff appeals these rulings granting defendants' motion and denying his own.


Although warrantless arrests in public places are valid, entry into a dwelling, even for purposes of an arrest for a serious crime, stands on an altogether different footing. "[A] greater burden is placed ... on officials who enter a home or dwelling without consent. Freedom from intrusion into the home or dwelling is the archetype of the privacy protection secured by the Fourth Amendment." Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 587, 100 S.Ct. 1371, 1380, 63 L.Ed.2d 639 (1979), quoting Dorman v. United States, 435 F.2d 385, 389 (D.C.Cir.1970).

To search a person's home and belongings, police officers ordinarily must first seek a warrant based on probable cause supported by oath or affirmation. Warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Payton, 445 U.S. at 586, 100 S.Ct. at 1380; United States v. Acosta, 965 F.2d 1248, 1251 (3d Cir.1992). Police must have probable cause to search, or the search is per se illegal. However, certain circumstances can excuse the warrant requirement. Among these are an inventory search incident to a lawful arrest (Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 107 S.Ct. 738, 93 L.Ed.2d 739 (1987)), objects in plain view of the officers (Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 107 S.Ct. 1149, 94 L.Ed.2d 347 (1987)) and exigent circumstances (Welsh v....

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