Finding a Reasonable Approach to the Extension of the Protective Sweep Doctrine in Non-Arrest Situations
Leslie A. O’Brien
Under the Supreme Court’s current protective sweep doctrine, it is constitutional for law enforcement officers to conduct a cursory sweep of a home incident to arrest where they have reasonable suspicion to believe the home may harbor a dangerous third party. The Supreme Court, however, has not clarified whether the protective sweep doctrine applies where there is no arrest. While at least one federal circuit court currently holds the view that protective sweeps are invalid absent an arrest, most circuits have indicated that protective sweeps may be valid even when they are not incident to an arrest. This Note argues that neither side of this circuit split has struck the right balance. By focusing too much attention on the “incident to arrest” language in Maryland v. Buie and not enough attention on the Court’s express concern for officer safety, the decisions refusing to extend the protective sweep doctrine to any non-arrest situations prohibit protective sweeps in cases where they would be reasonable and, thus, constitutional. In contrast, by failing to respect the Court’s repeated affirmations that exceptions to the warrant and probable cause requirements should be limited, and by brushing aside the importance of the arrest in Buie, the decisions extending the protective sweep doctrine to non-arrest situations either sanction unconstitutional searches or provide insufficient guidance to lower courts and the police, leaving Fourth Amendment privacy rights vulnerable. This Note argues that, to strike the right balance between protecting government interests and Fourth Amendment privacy rights, courts must incorporate a proper inquiry into the “need to search” into their reasonableness analysis. Specifically, they should require a compelling need for officers’ initial lawful entry into a home for protective sweeps to be valid. In applying this standard, courts should draw a bright line according to the type of entry involved, extending the protective sweep doctrine to situations where officers have entered a home pursuant to exigent circumstances or a court order, but not where officers have entered a home pursuant to consent. Such an approach will maintain the limited nature of this exception to the warrant and probable cause requirements while allowing officers to protect themselves when the public interest so requires. It will also provide lower courts and officers with clear guidelines on how to apply the law. As an ancillary benefit, this approach will also minimize the risk of pretextual searches.