Michigan v. Clifford
Annotate this Case
464 U.S. 287 (1984)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287 (1984)
Michigan v. Clifford
Argued October 5, 1983
Decided January 11, 1984
464 U.S. 287
Respondents' private residence was damaged by an early morning fire while they were out of town. Firefighters extinguished the blaze at 7:04 a.m., at which time all fire officials and police left the premises. Five hours later, a team of arson investigators arrived at the residence for the first time to investigate the cause of the blaze. They found a work crew on the scene boarding up the house and pumping water out of the basement. The investigators learned that respondents had been notified of the fire and had instructed their insurance agent to send the crew to secure the house. Nevertheless, the investigators entered the residence and conducted an extensive search without obtaining either consent or an administrative warrant. Their search began in the basement, where they found two Coleman fuel cans and a crock pot attached to an electrical timer. The investigators determined that the fire had been caused by the crock pot and timer and had been set deliberately. After seizing and marking the evidence found in the basement, the investigators extended their search to the upper portions of the house, where they found additional evidence of arson. Respondents were charged with arson and moved to suppress all the evidence seized in the warrantless search on the ground that it was obtained in violation of their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Michigan trial court denied the motion on the ground that exigent circumstances justified the search. On interlocutory appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that no exigent circumstances existed, and reversed.
Held: The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part.
JUSTICE POWELL, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that, where reasonable expectations of privacy remain in fire-damaged premises, administrative searches into the cause and origin of a fire are subject to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment absent consent or exigent circumstances. There are especially strong expectations of privacy in a private residence, and respondents here retained significant privacy interests in their fire-damaged home. Because the warrantless search of the basement and upper areas of respondents' home was authorized neither by consent nor by exigent circumstances, the evidence seized in that search was obtained in violation of respondents' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and must be suppressed. Pp. 464 U. S. 291-299.
(a) Where a warrant is necessary to search fire-damaged premises, an administrative warrant suffices if the primary object of the search is to determine the cause and origin of the fire, but a criminal search warrant, obtained upon a showing of probable cause, is required if the primary object of the search is to gather evidence of criminal activity. Pp. 464 U. S. 291-295.
(b) The search here was not a continuation of an earlier search, and the privacy interests in the residence made the delay between the fire and the midday search unreasonable absent a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances. Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U. S. 499, distinguished. Because the cause of the fire was known upon search of the basement, the search of the upper portions of the house could only have been a search to gather evidence of arson requiring a criminal warrant absent exigent circumstances. Even if the basement search had been a valid administrative search, it would not have justified the upstairs search, since, as soon as it had been determined that the fire originated in the basement, the scope of the search was limited to the basement area. Pp. 464 U. S. 296-298.
JUSTICE STEVENS concluded that the search of respondents' home was unreasonable, in contravention of the Fourth Amendment, because the investigators made no effort to provide fair advance notice of the inspection to respondents. A nonexigent, forceful, warrantless entry cannot be reasonable unless the investigator has made some effort to give the owner sufficient notice to be present while the investigation is made. Pp. 464 U. S. 303-305.
POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 464 U. S. 299. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 464 U. S. 305.