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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, February 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Batterer Can’t Exclude Warrantless Meth Search

(CN) - Police did not need a warrant to enter a trailer being used as a meth lab since the threat of domestic violence created an emergency situation, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled.

Robert Duane Gibson III threatened to stab girlfriend, Lisa Bevin, in the head when she got upset that he was preparing to cook meth in the trailer.

When Anchorage police arrived at the scene, they heard a woman screaming and crying. Bevin then tumbled out of the trailer wearing only a tank top. She was crying for help with a bleeding head and swollen eye.

Officers handcuffed Gibson when he exited the trailer and put an agitated Bevin in the patrol car.

While clearing the trailer later to check for more people who could have been involved in the altercation, officers discovered evidence of a meth lab. The drug unit then obtained a search warrant and seized the meth-production evidence.

Indicted on drug and assault charges, Gibson moved to suppress the evidence from the warrantless search of his trailer. After the trial court denied this motion, a jury convicted Gibson of three drug charges and assault.

The Court of Appeals reversed, however, saying the emergency-aid exception to the 14th Amendment did not apply.

But the state Supreme Court took a different view on Jan. 13, reflecting on a 2005 Violence Policy Center study titled "When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2003 Homicide Data."

"[This] study ranked Alaska first in the nation for the rate of intimate partner violence resulting in homicide," Daniel Winfree wrote for the majority.

"Nationally 92% of female victims were murdered by someone they knew and 62% were killed by husbands, ex-husbands, or boyfriends," the decision states

"The fundamental question raised by the difference in the Superior Court's and the Court of Appeals' decisions is this: Is it enough that the police have good reason to believe there might be, as opposed to there is, someone injured in the premises?" Winfree asked. "On the facts of this case, we answer yes."

The decision also notes that "silence from the trailer for the 25 minutes the officers waited for the backup officer to arrive was as equally consistent with someone lying injured in the trailer as it was with no one being in the trailer."

In a two-paragraph dissent, Justice Morgan Christen said that police did not meet the emergency-aid standard.

"The bottom line in this case is that no objective facts provided grounds for the warrantless entry," said Christen, who became a 9th Circuit judge the following day, Jan. 14. "In my view, the Court of Appeals ... correctly concluded that if a warrantless search could be upheld under the circumstances of this case, then a warrantless search could be permitted in virtually all domestic disturbance 911 calls."

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