Case Facts 1
On January 21, 1970, a fire broke in a furniture store, and firefighters arrived to put the flames out. The fire chief found remnants of flammable liquid containers in the building and called in the police. Having retrieved the pieces as evidence and taken some photographs of the site, the police charged the owners with conspiring to burn the building. They were convicted based on the produced evidence but appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which reversed the decision.
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The defendants’ principal claim was that the searches were conducted without a warrant or the owners’ consent. Hence, they would violate the Fourth Amendment, and the evidence produced as a result would not be admissible in court. However, the state authorities contended that the situation fell under a category that would permit a warrantless search. The two parties went to the Supreme Court to obtain its verdict on the matter.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled mostly in favor of Michigan, ruling that the entry during the fire was reasonable. The evidence was in plain view, and, therefore, its seizure was also lawful, as was the repeated visit in the morning, which was considered a continuation of the first entry (Michigan v. Tyler, 1978). However, entries that happened after January 22 were deemed to violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and evidence from them was determined to be inadmissible.
Effect on Fire Investigators
Fire investigators can enter the building while it is still on fire to put it out and retrieve any evidence that is in plain view. However, a further search of the building without a warrant or the owners’ consent is forbidden by law. The same requirements apply for any entry or search by a fire investigator after the fire has been put out.
Case Facts 2
A fire damaged a private home while the owners were out of town. The fire was extinguished, at which time all firefighters and police officers left the premises. However, a team of fire investigators arrived later, entering the house and searching it. They found a device used to set the fire deliberately in the basement and extended the search to the upper floors, where they found additional evidence. In the resulting court case, the Michigan Court of Appeals suppressed the evidence produced in the investigation as warrantless.
The investigators entered the premises without a warrant or exigent circumstances, as the fire had already been put out. However, the search was administrative rather than criminal, which put its relationship with the Fourth Amendment into question. With that said, the examination of the upper floors took place because of the suspicion that the fire was caused by arson and was, therefore, criminal in nature.
The Supreme Court determined that, while an administrative warrant would be a valid reason to enter the premises, the entry was unlawful because the investigators did not have one, nor were there exigent circumstances or consent. Moreover, even if they did, the search of the upper floors would be criminal in nature and beyond the scope of the warrant (Michigan v. Clifford, 1984). The final condition for reasonableness, advance notice, was not observed either, and the Supreme Court decided that the evidence has to be suppressed.
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Effect on Fire Investigators
Fire investigators have to obtain a warrant if they intend to search a building for reasons why a fire started, especially when private homes and their privacy requirements are taken into consideration. Failing this and without exigent circumstances, they have to provide the owner with fair advance notice to be present at the location before entering. Further, they have to be aware of the limitations of the administrative warrant, which does not permit gathering evidence beyond the area where the cause was determined to be located.
Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499 (Supreme Court 1978).
Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287 (Supreme Court 1984).