By Teresa Anderson | Security Management | August 1, 2005
An Oregon appeals court has ruled that the police search of a citizen's home in response to a false burglar alarm was illegal.
On the evening of February 23, 2002, the burglar alarm went off at Damon Stoudamire's house in Lake Oswego, Oregon. A professional basketball player, he was a few hours away in Portland, playing in a basketball game. His neighbors called the police.
Police officers arrived at the scene. The back door of the house was open about a foot, and neighbors claimed to have seen an unfamiliar car pull out of the driveway 45 minutes earlier. However, there was no evidence of a forced entry. In compliance with department policy when responding to a burglary call, the officers entered and searched Stoudamire's house.
The police did not find a burglar, but they did discover a large bag of marijuana. The officers confiscated the drugs and left Stoudamire a false-alarm notice indicating that they had been in the house and why they had been there.
Officers returned to Stoudamire's house a week later and told him of the marijuana they had found. They charged Stoudamire with possession of a controlled substance. In the run-up to Stoudamire's trial, defense attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found in their client's home. Attorneys argued that the officers had no right to search Stoudamire's home.
Prosecutors argued that the search was valid on several grounds. First, the state argued that Stoudamire had consented to the search when he purchased a burglar alarm and contracted with a company to monitor the alarm and call police when the alarm was triggered. Also, argued prosecutors, the police officers had probable cause to suspect that a crime was being committed and, thus, had the right to conduct the search.
The court ruled that the search had been illegal. This decision was based, in part, on the high false-alarm rate in the area. Between 1996 and 2002, there had been 32 false alarms at Stoudamire's house. He had been cited seven times under the city's false-alarm ordinance.
According to the city's records, more than 99 percent of all residential alarms triggered in Lake Oswego the previous year were false alarms. The court found that because the officers who searched Stoudamire's house knew this, they also knew that they had no probable cause to conduct the search.
The state appealed the decision to the state court of appeals. The appellate court agreed with the lower court finding that the search of Stoudamire's house was illegal. In addressing the state's argument that the defendant consented to the search when he installed a burglar alarm, the court noted that a person who has an alarm understands that neighbors might call the police if an alarm sounds and that police might enter the house under appropriate circumstances. But, the court noted, "the person does not consent in advance to every entry by the police in response to an alarm." (State of Oregon v. Damon Lamon Stoudamire, Court of Appeals of the State of Oregon, No. CR02-0915, 2005)