Underage drinking citations often arise during or following parties at private homes.  If an officer actually enters a home and starts giving out underage drinking citations or citations for furnishing alcohol to a minor, the first question to ask is whether the officer’s entry was legal.  

Did the officer have a warrant?  Did the owner give permission to enter?  If neither of these happened, there may be a defense to the charges based on the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. 

Here is what happened in this Ohio case.

Officer Observes Beer on the Kitchen Table and a Young Woman Running into a Bathroom 

While on patrol, an officer responded to a noise complaint at a home.   When the officer arrived, he parked his car and walked up to the front door.  He couldn’t see in, but he could hear loud music and voices coming from the inside of the house. The officers knocked on the door.  When no one answered, he knocked “very loudly” and announced: “police department.”  

The owner opened the door.  The officer recognized him from a previous drug related arrest.  The officer saw many beer cans on a table inside and a young woman (who appeared underage) running toward a bedroom/bathroom area.  The officer told the woman to come outside and she did not respond. 

The officer testified that he believed she was hiding because she was under 18 and had been drinking.   He believed she was hiding evidence (more alcohol) in the bathroom.  Based on the officer’s prior interactions with the home’s owner, he believed drugs might also be in the home. 

The officer entered the home without consent and without a warrant citing “destruction of [drug] evidence” as “exigent circumstances” warranting warrantless entry.  He then cited the owner with furnishing an underage person with alcohol in violation of R.C. 4301.69.

The “Exigent Circumstances” Exception to Warrantless Entry Into a Home By Police 

Generally, the police cannot enter a home without a warrant.  But there are a few exceptions to this rule.  One exception is called “exigent circumstances.”  The theory behind this exception is that when a serious crime is happening and the suspect will get away, the officers should be able to chase after him at that moment without having to get a warrant.

The exigent circumstances exception allows a warrantless entry to a home by police when: 

(1) a violent crime is happening;

(2) the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed;

(3) there is a clear showing of probable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime involved;

(4) there is a strong reason to believe that the suspect is in the premises being entered;

(5) the suspect will likely escape if not swiftly apprehended; and

(6) the entry, though not consented, is made peaceably.

“Exigent Circumstances” Do Not Apply for Misdemeanors, Such as Underage Drinking

Here, the prosecution argued that the officer had a right to enter without a warrant because he had probable cause to believe that the underage consumption of alcohol and drug use had occurred or was occurring (#3 above).

Furnishing an underage person with alcohol, a violation of R.C. 4301.69(B), is a first degree misdemeanor.   Under Ohio law, the exigent circumstances exception is NOT applicable to misdemeanors.  What’s more, just because the owner of the house has a history of drug arrests doesn’t mean that the girl running into the bathroom was using or hiding illegal drugs.  

Thus, with no warrant and no consent, the officer violated the Fourth Amendment by entering the home.   All evidence found in the home should have been suppressed.  Thus, all underage drinking and furnishing alcohol to an underage minor charges were dismissed. 

Wauseon v. Leveck, 2014-Ohio-3361.

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