DALLAS (CN) – Police should have obtained a warrant before finding a pipe bomb in the home of a man who threatened to blow up a Dallas County courthouse, a Texas appeals court ruled.
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas tossed the conviction Thursday, ruling that the trial court should have suppressed the pipe bomb evidence because the affidavit in support of the search warrant was based, in part, on information illegally obtained from a prior search without a warrant.
Michael Scott Page, of Mesquite, told a friend about “blowing things up,” including the courthouse, while out on bond on an unrelated aggravated assault charge, according to a written statement the friend provided to police.
The friend said that when Page made the comments two weeks earlier, he was depressed and upset because his trial had been postponed 10 to 12 times.
Police used the threats to declare the bond and obtain an arrest warrant, even though the friend thought she made it clear that Page was “just venting.”
As officers arrested a shoeless Page on his front lawn, one went inside the house to get Page’s shoes, and noticed several weapons, including a sword and shotgun.
Police testified that they entered the house without a warrant to retrieve the weapons for safe-keeping because they had considered Page’s mental state and did not want him to hurt himself. During this search, officers uncovered several more guns and the pipe bomb. They obtained a search warrant after the fact.
After Page failed to suppress the evidence at trial, he pleaded guilty to possession of a prohibited weapon, and was sentenced to four years in state prison and a $2,000 fine.
The appellate court reversed Thursday, saying the trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion to suppress.
Texas failed to show that the search qualified for an exception under the Fourth Amendment.
Under the emergency doctrine exception, officers can enter if they have an “immediate, reasonable belief that a person within is in need of immediate aid and the officer must act to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury.”
But since officers who arrested Page were not in danger, the panel disagreed that the exception existed here.
“Specifically, no one testified or argued the officers had a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts, that appellant’s house harbored anyone posing a danger to the officers,” Justice Molly Francis wrote for a three-judge panel. “In fact, the only person the officers believed to be dangerous had already been transported to jail. The facts of this case do not give rise to the warrantless first search being a protective sweep.”
Under the community caretaking exception, the officer must be “primarily motivated by his community caretaking function and must have a reasonable belief that the defendant needs help,” Francis wrote.
The panel refused to apply this exception either because it was unreasonable for the officers to believe that Page needed help at the time of his arrest.
“Because appellant had been removed from the house and was en route to jail before the officers began searching his house, there is clearly no evidence to show appellant was in distress, needed assistance, or presented a danger to himself or others,” Francis wrote. “Applying these factors, we conclude the officers’ exercise of their community caretaking function was not reasonable.”