Michigan v. Tyler - 436 U.S. 499 (1978)
U.S. Supreme Court
Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499 (1978)
Michigan v. Tyler
Argued January 10, 1978
Decided May 31, 1978
436 U.S. 499
Shortly before midnight on January 21, 1970, a fire broke out in respondents' furniture store, to which the local fire department responded. When the fire chief arrived at about 2 am., as the smoldering embers were being doused, the discovery of plastic containers of flammable liquid was reported to him, and after he had entered the building to examine the containers, he summoned a police detective to investigate possible arson. The detective took several pictures but ceased further investigation because of the smoke and steam. By 4 a.m., the fire had been extinguished, and the firefighters departed. The fire chief and detective removed the containers and left. At 8 a.m., the chief and his assistant returned for a cursory examination of the building. About an hour later, the assistant and the detective made another examination and removed pieces of evidence. On February 16, a member of the state police arson section took photographs at the store and made an inspection, which was followed by several other visits, at which time additional evidence and information were obtained. Respondents were subsequently charged with conspiracy to burn real property and other offenses. Evidence secured from the building and the testimony of the arson specialist were used at respondents' trial, which resulted in their convictions, notwithstanding their objections that no warrants or consent had been obtained for entries and inspection of the building and seizure of evidentiary items. The State Supreme Court reversed respondents' convictions and remanded the case for a new trial, concluding that
"[once] the blaze [has been] extinguished and the firefighters have left the premises, a warrant is required to reenter and search the premises, unless there is consent or the premises have been abandoned."
1. Official entries to investigate the cause of a fire must adhere to the warrant procedures of the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. Since all the entries in this case were "without proper consent" and were not "authorized by a valid search warrant," each one is illegal unless it falls within one of the "certain carefully defined classes of cases" for which warrants are not mandatory. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U. S. 523, 387 U. S. 528-529. Pp. 436 U. S. 504-509.
(a) There is no diminution in a person's reasonable expectation of privacy or in the protection of the Fourth Amendment simply because
the official conducting the search is a firefighter, rather than a policeman, or because his purpose is to ascertain the cause of a fire, rather than to look for evidence of a crime. Searches for administrative purposes, like searches for evidence of crime, are encompassed by the Fourth Amendment. The showing of probable cause necessary to secure a warrant may vary with the object and intrusiveness of the search, but the necessity for the warrant persists. Pp. 436 U. S. 505-506.
(b) To secure a warrant to investigate the cause of a fire, an official must show more than the bare fact that a fire occurred. The magistrate's duty is to assure that the proposed search will be reasonable, a determination that requires inquiry into the need for the intrusion, on the one hand, and the threat of disruption to the occupant, on the other. Pp. 436 U. S. 506-508.
2. A burning building clearly presents an exigency of sufficient proportions to render a warrantless entry "reasonable," and, once in the building to extinguish a blaze, and for a reasonable time thereafter, firefighters may seize evidence of arson that is in plain view and investigate the causes of the fire. Thus, no Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations were committed by the firemen's entry to extinguish the blaze at respondents' store, nor by the fire chief's removal of the plastic containers. P. 436 U. S. 509.
3. On the facts of this case, moreover, no warrant was necessary for the morning reentries of the building and seizure of evidence on January 22 after the 4 a.m. departure of the fire chief and other personnel, since these were a continuation of the first entry, which was temporarily interrupted by poor visibility. Pp. 436 U. S. 510-511.
4. The post-January 22 entries were clearly detached from the initial exigency, and since these entries were made without warrants and without consent, they violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Evidence obtained from such entries must be excluded at respondents' retrial. P. 436 U. S. 511.
399 Mich. 564, 250 N.W.2d 467, affirmed.
STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, J., joined; in all but Part IV-A of which WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ., joined; in Parts I, III, and IV of which STEVENS, J., joined; and in Parts I, III, and IV-A of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 436 U. S. 512. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 436 U. S. 514. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 436 U. S. 516. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.