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When responding to a fire call or entering a building where there is a working fire, we're thinking about saving lives and protecting property - not criminal and constitutional law. That is as it should be, but it is possible that any fire scene could also be a crime scene.
Courts have issued a number of decisions related to crimes committed in conjunction with fires. Consequently, there are a few important principles to keep in mind anytime it appears that there may be criminal activity at the scene of a fire.
First, it is important to remember a few basic rules of law from our Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects our homes and personal property from unwarranted search and seizure by any government agency. No government agency may enter our property, conduct a search or seize our possessions without our permission or a court order. As firefighters, we are agents of the government and therefore subject to this restriction.
The courts, however, have carved out some exceptions to that rule. One of the most significant exceptions is for emergencies ("exigent circumstances," in legal terms). In a 1978 decision, Michigan v. Tyler, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically applied this exception to the fire service. Firefighters do not need a warrant to enter a building to fight a fire. A burning building presents an emergency sufficient to make a warrantless entry reasonable.
Further, the Court rejected the notion that the justification for the warrantless entry ends as soon as the flames are doused. It noted that firefighters might be required to undertake an immediate investigation to prevent a recurrence of the fire (what we call salvage and overhaul) or to preserve evidence from intentional or accidental destruction.
In the Tyler case, the fire was extinguished by 4 A.M. and the fire officials left the scene. They returned at 8 A.M. for a cursory examination and returned again at 9 A.M. State arson investigators entered the burned store without a warrant on at least three additional occasions - four days, seven days and 25 days after the fire. The Court held that the early-morning re-entry to continue the investigation did not require a warrant because it was nothing more than a continuation of the initial operation. The searches conducted days later, however, were clearly not attached to the initial emergency. The evidence obtained as a result of these later searches could not be admitted at trial.
While the Court's principle was clear, later courts have struggled with how to apply it to a variety of factual situations. In particular, courts have struggled with what constitutes a "reasonable time" after the fire to permit warrantless searches.
Courts have upheld searches conducted as long as 11 hours after the fire, but there also have been cases in which searches conducted as soon as three or four hours after the fires were knocked down were ruled not reasonable. These varying decisions, however, seem to be consistent with the Supreme Court's ruling that the conditions of each particular situation must be considered. That is, there is no specific formula that determines how long after a fire is knocked down that investigators may enter (or remain in) a building without a warrant. The specific conditions or each particular situation determines reasonableness.