A Civil Commitment Order Alone Is Not a Sufficient Basis for a Law Enforcement Official to Enter the Home of a Third-Party; Ruling Not Disturbed by Supreme Court

Developments in Mental Health Law, January 2009 | Go to article overview

A Civil Commitment Order Alone Is Not a Sufficient Basis for a Law Enforcement Official to Enter the Home of a Third-Party; Ruling Not Disturbed by Supreme Court


A foundation of the Fourth Amendment protection from "unreasonable searches and seizures" is the "centuries-old principle of respect for the privacy of the home." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 610 (1992). To guard this privacy and to minimize the danger that governmental officials will unnecessarily enter a home, it is well-established that there is a presumption that searches and seizures inside a home conducted without a warrant are unreasonable and thus violate the Fourth Amendment. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980). In a case out of Georgia, the question was posed whether a civil commitment order issued by a judge is the equivalent of a judicially-issued arrest or search warrant in that it allows a law enforcement official to enter a home without permission to place in custody the individual whose civil commitment was ordered. The Eleventh Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals said no, at least with regard to a third party's home, unless there was consent given to enter the home or objectively reasonable exigent circumstances existed that justified the entrance.

In this case, the parents of a 17-year-old young man, "J.T.", requested a civil commitment order for their son from a probate court. They submitted a form in which they had checked off "boxes" indicating that they had observed in the past forty-eight hours that J.T. was an alcoholic and drug dependent individual who required involuntary treatment and "present[ed] a substantial risk of imminent harm to himself or others as manifested by either recent overt acts or recent expressed threats of violence which present a probability of physical injury to himself or to other persons." The parents added in their own language that their son was a drug abuser who would not go to school or work, "says he does [not] care about anything," and "needs help before he hurts himself or someone else." They listed their home as J.T.'s address. A probate court issued a civil commitment order authorizing any peace officer in the county to take J.T. into custody and deliver him to a specified emergency receiving facility.

Later that morning, a law enforcement official was charged with executing the civil commitment order, and was joined by another officer. The mother informed the officer that J.T. might be found at the house of a friend and provided his address. The officers reviewed the commitment order and the information provided by J.T.'s parents, knew that they were going to a third party's home, and did not attempt to obtain a search or arrest warrant.

Shortly after 9 a.m. that same day, the officers knocked on the back door of this residence, the home of D'Anna Bates. Mrs. Bates' 14-year-old step-daughter answered the knock and told the officers that J.T. was not in the house. The officers asked if they could come in and search the house. The step-daughter is reported to have said "I don't know." The officers walked inside and opened the door to a bedroom where Mrs. Bates' 18-year-old step-daughter was lying in bed. When asked whether J.T. was in the house, she said she didn't know. The officers asked her if they could look around, to which she responded "I guess so." The officers proceeded to another bedroom where they found Ms. Bates' 19-year-old son and J.T. asleep. The officers woke up the two boys and J.T. dressed. Both young men complied with the officers' directions.

Mrs. Bates came out of her bedroom purportedly in response to "loud voices and banging," demanded to see a search warrant, and was told by one of the officers that he had a commitment order that authorized them to enter her home. Mrs. Bates insisted that the officers must leave her house immediately if they could not show her a search warrant.

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