(CN) - An improvised bomb that police found in a locked closet during a domestic violence call cannot be used as evidence against a Navy corpsman, the 4th Circuit ruled.
James City County Police had responded to a domestic violence call at the home of Joseph Yengel in December 2011. The 911 dispatcher apprised officers that Mrs. Yengel had left the house and Yengel was potentially armed and threatening to shoot police officers.
Officer J.M. Slodysko first arrived at the Yengel home, convinced Yengel to come out onto the porch unarmed, and calmed him down before arresting him and taking him to the station.
Mrs. Yengel then told Officer Brian Staton that Yengel had a grenade in the house, and that their young son was upstairs asleep. Rather than calling the explosives team, Station asked Mrs. Yengel to show him the grenade.
She showed Staton a closet in a guest bedroom that was locked with a combination keypad and thumbprint scanner. Though she did not know the combination code, Mrs. Yengel gave Staton permission to "kick the door open" and "do whatever you need to do to get in there."
At this point, Staton still had not contacted the explosives team, requested a search warrant, or removed the sleeping child from the room next door.
Instead, he pried the closet door open with a screwdriver.
Inside, Staton found two gun safes, various weapons and a military ammunition canister, which he believed might contain the alleged grenade.
After this warrantless search, Staton evacuated the house and called the explosives experts, who searched the closet and found a backpack with a partially assembled explosive device attached to a kitchen timer.
Based on this discovery, prosecutors charged Yengel with possession of an unregistered firearm, or "a combination of parts designed and intended for use in converting a device into a destructive device, not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record."
Yengel, a hospital corpsman 2nd class with the Navy, persuaded a federal judge in Newport News, Va., to suppress evidence collected from the warrantless search.
Distinguishing this case from a search that the 4th Circuit upheld in the 2008 decision Mora v. City of Gaithersburg, the Norfolk-based federal appeals court affirmed Friday.
"We conclude the objective circumstances discernible at the time Sergeant Staton entered the closet did not constitute an emergency such that a reasonable officer would have believed a preventive entry was warranted," Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for the three-judge panel. "In fact, Sergeant Staton's own actions belie the Government's argument."
"The presence of explosive materials must be tied to objective facts that sufficiently increase the likelihood, urgency, and magnitude of the threat to the level of an emergency," she added. "We find no clear error in the district court's factual finding that a grenade is a stable, inert explosive device that typically requires human intervention to detonate and cause harm."
In addition, the officers at the scene showed no signs they feared imminent danger, which would exempt the search from the mandates of the Fourth Amendment.
"The fact that no officers on the scene sought to evacuate the nearby residences, or, in particular, to evacuate Mrs. Yengel's young son who was sleeping in the room directly next to the alleged grenade provides stark evidence that a reasonable police officer would not - and did not - believe an emergency was on-going, such as would justify a warrantless entry," Thacker wrote (italics in original).
Preventative police action may be justified in an emergency, but "the factual circumstances of this case simply do not rise to that level," the ruling concludes.
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