United States v. Willie Cooks (11th Cir. April 2019)

Fourth Amendment – Warrantless search of crawlspace in house following defendant’s arrest after a stand-off was justified by exigent circumstances where there were reasons for officers to believe the defendant may have hidden a hostage in the crawlspace.

Willie Lee Cooks was arrested and charged with federal firearm offenses after law enforcement conducted a warrantless search of his home following his arrest. The search occurred after a “standoff” between Cooks and law enforcement officers during which Cooks barricaded himself in the house with three other occupants. Law enforcement officers were informed that Cooks was armed, heard the sounds of a power drill, and were told by occupants that Cooks was “doing something in a hole in the floor,” possibly putting guns down there.

After a SWAT team entered the house and arrested Cooks, the officers performed two short protective sweeps, during which they found a sheet of plywood covering a four-by-four hole in the ground. Officers removed the plywood covering the hole and discovered the home’s crawlspace, where they also found several firearms. Officers then obtained a search warrant and seized the firearms.

During the hearing on his motion to suppress the firearms, Cooks argued that removing the plywood cover and crawling under the house was “overbroad for a protective sweep,” and the Government countered that the search was justified as a protective sweep or under the exigent-circumstances doctrine, as the officers believed there may have been other hostages or “bad guys” in the hole. The district court held that the search was not justified as part of a protective sweep but was justified based on exigent-circumstances, namely that there was reason to believe there could be more hostages in the hole.

On appeal, the Court affirmed and agreed with the district court that the search was justified based on the “emergency-aid aspect of the exigent-circumstances doctrine,” which justifies warrantless searches “where officers reasonably believe a person is in danger” as long as the search is “strictly circumscribed” by the nature of the exigency.

The Court held that the officers reasonably perceived a hostage situation at Cooks’ residence, which created an exigency that remained ongoing during their search of the crawlspace. Despite the high level of scrutiny applicable to warrantless searches of residences, the Court explained that it would not “armchair quarterback” law enforcement’s decisions, citing “the weight that our precedent places on the need to protect human life.” It didn’t matter that there were no additional hostages in the hole—the sound of the power drills, the nature of the stand-off, and statements by the occupants made it reasonable for the officers to believe there might be.

The Court further held that the search was proportional to the exigency. The officers’ use of a crow bar to pry open the plywood door was not more intrusive than necessary because “even the most intrusive of government actions may be warranted where the preservation of human life is at stake” and the search “took no longer than necessary to verify that the crawlspace was empty.”

Judge Gilman, sitting by designation from the Sixth Circuit, dissented and argued that the officers did not observe anything specific to indicate that someone was in the crawlspace, “let alone that someone there was in immediate danger.” Significantly, the dissent pointed out that none of the officers ever called down into the crawlspace to determine whether someone was down there. It also faulted the majority’s focus on what the officers couldn’t “rule out” as unwarranted speculation.

Appeal from Northern District of Alabama

Opinion by Newsom, joined by Tjoflat

Dissent by Gilman (by designation from 6th Cir.)

Click here to read the opinion.


Tom Church

Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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