RECENT 5TH CIRCUIT RULING ON WHEN HOT PURSUIT STOPS AND PROBABLE CAUSE STARTS
While there are many differences between civilian courts and military courts, both share one thing in common: in the case of appeals, when clarification is needed, federal court decisions hold sway and make final determinations. Examining a number of recent rulings, one can identify trends in these federal rulings and how they continue to guide and shift the justice system's perspective on critical legal matters. In Trent v. Wade, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals made an incisive distinction on a case involving probable cause and unlawful entry.
In November of 2011, Officer Wade of the Rowlett Police Department witnessed illegal racing activity on a closed highway. He pursued one of the vehicles, an ATV, to the Trent residence, where the ATV driver fled into the house. Officer Wade then entered the house and arrested the ATV driver, a son of the Trent household. The Trents went on to sue Officer Wade, claiming that his entry to their house was unlawful.
During the subsequent trial, Officer Wade invoked the "hot pursuit exception," a law that allows officers to forgo the knock-and-announce rule when approaching residences for entry. However, as the court pointed out, a justified no-knock entry must include an officer determination that knocking and announcing would be dangerous or futile. In this case, futility is defined by the occupants' awareness that the police have arrived.
The court then had to consider:
- If Officer Wade could have determined if other occupants were present before entering
- If the other occupants reasonably could have known Officer Wade had arrived
- If the other occupants' condition at 2 a.m. made them reasonably aware
In the end, the Fifth Circuit Court determined that Officer Wade should have reasonably determined other occupants were present in the house and that they, likely asleep at 2 a.m., were reasonably not aware that Officer Wade had arrived. This would make the knock-and-announce rule applicable in this instance and Officer Wade was denied immunity in the Trent's suit.
FEDERAL COURT DETERMINATION OF RESPONSIBILITY
Not all the news was bad for Officer Wade: the Trents also tried to sue him for the illegal search and seizure of their ATV, an action that the Fifth Circuit Court determined was lawful. In both determinations, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals provided sharp insight in this case and ultimately placed the burden of determining probable cause on law enforcement – even in the midst of a potentially dangerous criminal pursuit.
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