What can police search for during a protective sweep of the house? | United States v. Raymond Brown

In Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment permits a properly limited protective sweep in conjunction with an in-home arrest when the searching officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene. But what are the limits of such a search?

United States v. Raymond Brown perfectly illustrates the limits of the protective sweep doctrine. In this case, officers had probable cause to arrest Mr. Brown. He, however, upon seeing law enforcement approaching, entered his home, and thus created exigent circumstances. Police then had a right to follow him into the house.

Inside the house, Mr. Brown exited the bathroom. Police were worried that someone else could have been hiding in the bathroom. Then decided to search the bathroom. A protective sweep is a quick and limited search of premises, incident to an arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others. It is narrowly confined to a cursory visual inspection of those places in which a person might be hiding.

Once inside the bathroom, the officer pulled back the shower curtain to make sure no one was hiding behind. Upon seeing that the lid to the toilet tank was open, he looked in and saw a gun at the bottom of the toilet tank.

Clearly, a person could not have been hiding in the toilet tank! Detective’s look into the toilet tank was an improper search.

Full opinion: 2018 WL 5603541

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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