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Friday, November 5, 2010

4th Circuit creates "lost child" exception to warrant requirement

by Kirsten E. Small

May 1, 2009 was a bad day for Melvin Taylor, but it could have been a worse day for the 4-year-old daughter of Taylor's girlfriend. A cab driver found the child wandering on a busy street in Richmond, Virginia, and contacted the police. Officer Anthony Ratliff responded, and the girl took him to a nearby--and apparently empty--row house. Ratliff followed her inside, shouting "hello" periodically as he looked for an adult who might be responsible for the child.

The adult Ratliff found was Taylor, who was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom. The bag of bullets on the bedside table gave Ratliff some pause as to the "responsible" part, so he asked Taylor his name (he gave a false one) and if he knew the address of the house he was in (he claimed not to). Ratliff's concerns not having been allayed, he performed a protective sweep and found a handgun under Taylor's mattress.

About that time, Taylor's cell phone rang with a call from "Baby's Mama," who helpfully provided Ratliff with the name "Orlando Taylor," which Ratliff then traced back to Melvin Taylor, who turned out to have a prior felony which made his possession of the gun illegal.

Taylor appealed his subsequent conviction, arguing that Ratliff was required to have a search warrant, or at least probable cause, before entering the house. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, holding that a warrant was unnecessary because there was no criminal investigation afoot--just an attempt to reunite a lost child with her parents. Aside from the warrant requirement, the court concluded that the search was reasonable, in its occurrence and its scope, in light of the exigent circumstances.

The case is United States v. Taylor.

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