It Seemed like the Reasonable Approach at the Time: A Circuit Split on the Meaning of “Reasonable Belief” in Search and Seizure

How Many Warrants?

Two major Supreme Court decisions are at play here concerning the constitutionality of officers entering residences to execute arrest warrants when residency of the suspect is uncertain.

In the aftermath of the first case, Payton v. New York (S.Ct. 1980), the Courts of Appeals developed a two-prong test to assess the constitutionality of an officer’s entry to execute an arrest warrant: the officer must have a “reasonable belief” that (1) the “arrestee lives in the residence, and that (2) the “arrestee is within the residence.” United States v. Gay (10th Cir. 2001).

One year after Payton, the Supreme Court held that officers may not enter the residence of a third party to execute an arrest warrant unless they first obtain a search warrant based on the belief that the suspect “might be a guest there.” Steagald v. United States (S.Ct. 1981). This created a stricter standard for entering officers if they believe only that the suspect is a common “guest” in the residence rather than a resident or immediately within the residence. Thus, officers would much prefer that the arrestee is a resident and within the residence as opposed to being simply a guest.  The determination of whether officers need only an arrest warrant to enter versus an arrest warrant and a search warrant to enter a residence is entirely dependent on an officer’s “reasonable belief.”

The circuit courts have since been faced with discerning what constitutes a “reasonable belief,” thus determining when both an arrest and a search warrant are necessary for constitutional entry into third party residences as opposed to only an arrest warrant.

Circuit Split

The Third Circuit is the most recent voice to enter the interpretive dispute surrounding the standard of “reasonable belief.” United States v. Vasquez-Algarin (3rd Cir. 2016).

Joining the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, the Third Circuit held that reasonable belief should be viewed as the functional equivalent of probable cause, and thus the same standard.  The practical effect of requiring a probable cause standard is that it makes it more difficult to enter only with an arrest warrant. The Third Circuit had two primary reasons for their decision:

  • First, the Supreme Court’s use of the phrase “reason to believe,” when considered in the context of Payton and more generally the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, supports a probable cause standard.
  • Second, and more fundamentally, requiring that law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe their suspect resides at and is present within the dwelling before making a forced entry is the only conclusion commensurate with the constitutional protections the Supreme Court has accorded to the home.

Some of Vasquez-Algarin’s reasoning echoes that of the Sixth Circuit, both noting that on several occasions the Supreme Court has used the same “reason to believe” language from Payton “as a stand-in for ‘probable cause.’” (3d Cir. 2016).

The DC Circuit, First, Second, and Tenth Circuits have held that the standard for reasonable belief falls short of the standard for probable cause belief. The DC Circuit reasons that it is “more likely . . . that the Supreme Court in Payton used a phrase other than ‘probable cause’ because it meant something other than ‘probable cause.’” (2005). The Tenth Circuit equates probable cause requirements with calls for “actual knowledge of the suspect’s true residence.” (1999). It believes extending probable cause as the standard for a “reasonable basis” for determining that an individual “lived in the residence and . . . could be found within at the time of entry,” would “effectively make Payton a dead letter.” Valdez v. McPheters (10th Cir. 1999).

The Third Circuit claims that the Supreme Court’s choice of stand-in language undermines the DC Circuit’s conclusion that Payton’s ‘reason to believe’ language should be interpreted loosely. The Third Circuit explains that the Supreme Court’s use of “reason to believe” as a stand-in for “probably cause” indicates the Court’s belief that the standard for the two is the same.

Looking Forward

The incongruence in requirements for only arrest warrants versus arrest and search warrants creates such a fundamental constitutional discrepancy that the Supreme Court should address it soon.

For the last 36 years, courts have been left to grapple with the interpretation of the Court’s language in Payton, and the circuits seem to have pretty evenly split on the meaning of a “reasonable belief.” Until the Court addresses the standard for reasonable belief varying degrees of scrutiny will continue to be imposed on officers, and the degree of protection of an individual’s right to be secure in their home will remain grey.