Court says police should have had warrant

Justices: Police could not prove gravity of the situation

By Dave Kolpack
Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Supreme Court has ruled on its second warrantless search case in a month, and this time it went against police.

The court said in an opinion released last week that authorities were wrong to enter a Bismarck home in August 2012 without a warrant in a search that resulted in drug charges for Alicia Hart and Paul Sitte. Hart and Sitte had entered conditional guilty pleas based on the outcome of their appeal.

The case began when police acting on an anonymous tip went to look for a suspected drug dealer at a Bismarck duplex. Police did not find the suspect but were given permission by residents to search the duplex, where they discovered a large amount of methamphetamine and two handguns, court documents show.

The residents also told authorities that the suspect left with Sitte in Sitte’s red pickup after “grabbing some stuff.” The officers then went to Sitte’s residence, where they saw two unidentified males take something out of their vehicles and bring it into the house.

Police knocked on the door and the suspect from the first residence answered and was arrested. Police decided to make what they called a “protective sweep” of the house when the suspect told them no one else was there, even though officers saw two males walk in. Officers testified they were worried for their safety because of the drugs and firearms.

The sweep resulted in the arrests of Hart and Sitte, who argued that the search and seizure was illegal and the evidence should be thrown out. The justices agreed, claiming police could not prove the gravity of the situation. The case has been returned to district court.

“We are aware of the ever-present dangers officers face in the line of duty,” the ruling said. “However, in balancing the significant equities between officer safety and the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and given the facts of this case, the claim for officer safety does not outweigh the unreasonableness of the protective sweep at Sitte’s residence.”

Lawyers who argued the case were not available for comment Monday.

The ruling comes three weeks after the court decided to allow evidence of marijuana and other drug paraphernalia that police found inside a Fargo apartment using a drug-sniffing dog. A district judge had said police who entered the apartment when someone opened a locked main entrance should have obtained a search warrant before conducting the sweep.

The court ruled that the defendant, Matthew Nguyen, could not expect the common hallways of the apartment building to be free from intrusion. Defense attorneys complained that such searches are not fair to people who don’t own their homes.