Dialogue of Aspasia: Exigent Circumstances
by Joshua Brownlee
Officer Ness: Hello again, Aspasia isn’t it?
Aspasia: Hi Officer Ness, how are you? Are you off duty?
Officer Ness: Yeah, it’s my day off and I felt like having one of those fancy iced coffees.
Aspasia: Care to join me, I was wondering if I could get your opinion on something?
Officer Ness: Sure, although I’m not in a very good place today.
Aspasia: Sorry to hear that, what happened?
Officer Ness: A buddy from the police academy was chasing some burglary suspects through a neighborhood. I guess he caught up with them and they gunned him down.
Aspasia: That’s horrible.
Officer Ness: He was a really good officer, everyone at the precinct is down about it. I’m guessing you wanted to talk about the shooting on the Southside?
Aspasia: No, not anymore. I have a lot of respect for you as an officer and I don’t want to offend you.
Officer Ness: I don’t know what I’m offended by. I just have a lot of strong emotions when it comes to shootings.
Aspasia: I think you’re entitled to feel that way. It’s much easier to deal with both incidents separately instead of at the same time.
Officer Ness: It is, that’s why the news channels only play the one story. Doesn’t matter which one, they pick one and forget the other. I guess I am angry they give more coverage to the police shooting a civilian and his dog instead of the officer gunned down chasing suspects. I’m not saying it’s right to feel that way, but it’s how I feel.
Aspasia: But they were very different situations right?
Officer Ness: It seems that way, but I don’t know, I wasn’t there.
Aspasia: Your friend, why was he chasing the suspects?
Officer Ness: There was a 911 call about a burglary in progress. It seems that he ordered three men who matched descriptions to stop and they ran away. He called in to dispatch and chased after them. At some point they shot him.
Aspasia: Did he ever fire his weapon?
Officer Ness: It doesn’t appear that he did.
Aspasia: If he shot them first, he would still be alive?
Officer Ness: Probably, he was a former military guy and a top marksman.
Aspasia: Why didn’t he shoot them first?
Officer Ness: It was dark and he probably didn’t see a gun.
Aspasia: So he risked being shot in the dark rather than shoot a group of potentially unarmed men?
Officer Ness: Yeah, that sounds like him.
Aspasia: Your friend was a good officer and a brave man. I’m not sure about the officers on the Southside.
Officer Ness: Why do you say that? They had similar facts.
Aspasia: How so?
Officer Ness: The officers were responding to a 911 suspicious person call?
Aspasia: How many officers were there?
Officer Ness: Three.
Apsasia: Did they ever see a suspicious person?
Officer Ness: No, they only had a vague description of a house.
Aspasia: How did they know they had the right house?
Officer Ness: They didn’t. It was a vague description on the 911 call.
Aspasia: Did the officers have a relationship with the caller?
Officer Ness: No, just a stranger calling it in.
Aspasia: What did the officers do when they got there?
Officer Ness: They snuck into the backyard and went into the house through the back door.
Aspasia: Did they have a warrant?
Officer Ness: No, I think they would claim exigent circumstances.
Aspasia: What are those?
Officer Ness: Those are situations which exempt law enforcement from the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment. For example if an officer is in hot pursuit of a suspect, saving a person from imminent danger, or keeping evidence from being destroyed.
Aspasia: Which exigent circumstance would apply to that situation?
Officer Ness: Maybe keeping someone from eminent danger. The suspicious person could have been in the house and hurt the people inside.
Aspasia: But without a description or some distinguishing factor how do they know who is supposed to be there and who isn’t?
Officer Ness: They don’t.
Aspasia: Why did they shoot the dog?
Officer Ness: It was a pit bull, so I guess they thought it was attacking them.
Aspasia: Was it barking before they went in the back yard?
Officer Ness: No, apparently it was sitting with the home owner, his wife and their one year old child watching a movie.
Aspasia: So the TV was on?
Officer Ness: Yeah apparently.
Aspasia: So the police didn’t see light from the TV flickering in the windows? Burglars don’t usually sit and watch TV in a house do they?
Officer Ness: No they don’t. It sounds like the police didn’t look.
Aspasia: So the dog wasn’t barking and burglars don’t bring attack dogs to rob a house?
Officer Ness: Not on any burglary case I’ve worked on.
Aspasia: So they shot the dog because it started barking at them when they entered the back yard?
Officer Ness: I think they entered the back door of the house and it started barking. That’s when they shot the dog.
Aspasia: Were there indications of forced entry on the back door showing someone had kicked it in or broke the lock?
Officer Ness: No, the back door was just opened.
Aspasia: What about the home owner?
Officer Ness: Apparently the man went to go check on what the dog was barking at and they shot him.
Aspasia: Was he armed?
Officer Ness: No, thankfully he was unarmed.
Aspasia: Why thankfully?
Officer Ness: Clearly those officers were high strung, if he had been armed I don’t think he would have lived through it.
Aspasia: So police can break into your house without a warrant, shoot your dog, and then shoot you in front of your family. No consequences?
Officer Ness: No way there will be consequences. There could very well be criminal charges and most likely a civil case against the officers.
Aspasia: Do you think your friend would have done the same thing?
Officer Ness: No way.
Officer Ness: He would always put himself at risk before a citizen. Hell, he probably wouldn’t even shoot the dog if he realized he was in the wrong house. Knowing him, he would have let the dog bite him because he was in the wrong. Come to think of it, I don’t see him being in that situation in the first place. He knew when exigent circumstances applied and when they didn’t.
Aspasia: How come he knew but the officers on the Southside didn’t?
Officer Ness: Partly because of the character of the officer and partly because of how cases are brought in our jurisdiction.
Aspasia: What does criminal procedure have to do with it?
Officer Ness: In our jurisdiction prosecutors and judges don’t penalize defendants for bringing cases to trial or motions hearings. This means defendants aren’t forced to plea out their case.
Aspasia: I’m still not following.
Officer Ness: At a motion to suppress hearing or a criminal trial, an officer has to take the stand and justify his or her actions under oath on public record in front of a judge. Those hearings teach officers, especially young ones, the functional application of exigent circumstances. If they screw up the judge and defense attorney jump down their throat.
Aspasia: I see, isn’t there a less humiliating way to do it?
Officer Ness: Maybe, but training and manuals can only do so much. Young officers need to be in the field and have their police work scrutinized. When criminal cases are rarely challenged in court bad practices go unnoticed and get worse over time.
Aspasia: So why doesn’t the criminal justice system do that?
Officer Ness: There aren’t enough judges, prosecutors, and public defenders to handle the current cases. So incentives are put in place for defendants who resolve their cases quickly and penalties in the form of increased sentences for those that challenge the state’s case.
Aspasia: But doesn’t that help get rid of people that know they are guilty?
Officer Ness: Sure, but sometimes you get a kid who is caught with weed but the search is bad or unconstitutional. The prosecutor or judge may have a policy of doubling the sentence if the case goes to trial or motion to suppress hearing. Defendant ends up entering a plea at arraignment rather than taking a risk and the officer never gets called on making a bad search. The bad habits continues year after year.
Aspasia: So judicial efficiency isn’t always a good thing?
Officer Ness: It makes my job easier and saves the tax payers from hiring more judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. I guess it depends on the community, it’s definitely a messy issue. Most people are like the news channels, they only want to tell one story at a time.
Aspasia: I’ll pray for your friend’s family.
Officer Ness: Thanks.