Mincey v. Arizona
The Court severely limited the ability of police officers to conduct searches of murder scenes without first obtaining a search warrant.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides that the government may not subject a person to an unreasonable search or seizure of their "persons, houses, papers, and effects." Generally, to be reasonable, a search must be based on "probable cause," that is, the police officers must have some reason to believe that the search will find contraband, evidence of a crime, or similar items. Also, prior to conducting a search, the police generally have to obtain a warrant from a judge authorizing the search. The requirements are strictly applied to cases in which police officers enter a private home. In certain situations, however, the Supreme Court has determined that the police do not need to obtain a warrant to conduct a search supported by probable cause. These situations, referred to as exceptions to the warrant requirement, typically involve scenarios where the police do not have time to obtain a warrant, or where obtaining a warrant would be useless. One such situation in which police officers are justified in conducting a search without a warrant is where so-called "exigent," or emergency, circumstances exist. The most important exigent circumstance is where a search is necessary to find an injured person or to otherwise prevent the death or injury of a person.
In the case of Mincey v. Arizona, the state of Arizona asked the Supreme Court to recognize a new category of exigent circumstances for which a search warrant is not required. On 28 October 1978, undercover police officers in Tucson, Arizona, conducted a raid at an apartment occupied by Rufus Mincey. Shots were fired by Mincey, and one officer was killed. Mincey was also wounded in the exchange. Police officers rushed into the apartment to search for other possibly injured people. They conducted a quick search of the living room, bedroom, and bedroom closet, but refrained from conducting any further investigation. However, about ten minutes later homicide detectives arrived on the scene and conducted a thorough, four-day search of the apartment.
Mincey was charged in the Arizona state trial court with the murder of the police officer, assault, and possession of narcotics. Mincey filed a motion in the trial court to exclude the evidence seized by the homicide officers during the search of his apartment. He claimed that the officers should have obtained a warrant to search the premises. The trial court disagreed and allowed the prosecution to introduce the evidence. Mincey was convicted, and he raised the same argument on appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the search was valid based on a so-called "murder scene" exception to the warrant requirement. According to the Arizona Supreme Court, the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because police officers may search the scene of a homicide without a warrant as long as the search is "limited to determining the circumstances of death."
Mincey then sought to appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court through a procedure known as a petition for writ of certiorari. The Court granted the petition and heard the case on 21 February 1978.
The Court unanimously rejected the argument that the search was proper because of the injured victims, concluding that the four-day search conducted by the homicide officers exceeded the scope of the emergency. The Court also rejected Arizona's request that the Court recognize a murder scene exception to the warrant requirement. According to Arizona, such an exception was necessary due to the public's interest in quickly investigating and solving murder cases. The Court found this argument unpersuasive:
[T]he State points to the vital public interest in the prompt investigation of the extremely serious crime of murder. No one can doubt the importance of this goal. But the public interest in the investigation of other serious crimes is comparable. If the warrantless search of a homicide scene is reasonable, why not the warrantless search of the scene of a rape, a robbery, or a burglary?
Mincey was retried in the Arizona courts and was convicted despite the fact that the prosecution was unable to introduce the evidence seized in Mincey's apartment. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Court's decision in Mincey did have a rather profound impact on the ability of police to conduct a warrantless search of a murder scene. Up to the time of the decision, most lower courts had allowed the police to conduct such searches without a warrant. Following Mincey, however, the police may do no more than search for possible victims at the scene until they have obtained a search warrant.