On April 18, 2016, William & Mary Law School’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic argued the case Corrigan v. District of Columbia in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The clinic represented Matthew Corrigan, a veteran who served in Iraq and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The primary legal issue in the case was whether police officers acted reasonably by going inside Mr. Corrigan’s apartment without a warrant after he was already in police custody.
On February 2, 2010, Mr. Corrigan mistakenly called the National Suicide Hotline, thinking it was an emotional support hotline for veterans. In response to the hotline operator’s questions, Mr. Corrigan explained that he had served in the military and that he owned guns, but that he was not suicidal and did not intend to harm himself or others. After the call ended, Mr. Corrigan turned off his phone and went to sleep. The hotline operator, however, called 911 and a team of police were dispatched to his apartment in the District of Columbia.
Police claim that upon arriving officers noted an odor of natural gas in the neighborhood and called the local gas company to turn the gas off. Over the course of six hours, the police claim to have learned from neighbors and Mr. Corrigan’s ex-girlfriend that Mr. Corrigan was a veteran with PTSD and owned a green duffel bag of “military items,” although they did not know what those items were. Because Mr. Corrigan was asleep, he did not hear the officers attempting to contact him outside his home. Mr. Corrigan eventually woke up to his name being called over a bullhorn and walked outside his apartment. As he did, police restrained his hands with zipties, put him in a patrol car, and took him to a hospital.
Afterward, without consent and without a search warrant, the police conducted two searches of Mr. Corrigan’s apartment. In the process, they dumped out drawers, tore open locked containers, and left Mr. Corrigan’s home in disarray. Mr. Corrigan returned home from jail two weeks later to an unlocked door and an apartment in shambles. In the search, police found unregistered guns and ammunition. Mr. Corrigan was later arrested and charged for having the guns, but charges were dropped when the District of Columbia Superior Court ruled that the searches violated Mr. Corrigan’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Under the Fourth Amendment, police need a warrant to go inside a private home unless a specific exception to the warrant requirement applies. If there are exigent circumstances, police may go inside a home without a warrant, but police must first have an objectively reasonable belief that such an emergency exists. Police cannot merely speculate that an emergency could possibly exist in the absence of direct evidence of danger. However, the district court granted summary judgment to the officers and the District of Columbia government because it ruled that the police had reason to believe Mr. Corrigan had hostages or explosives inside his apartment. The primary question on appeal, thus, is whether the police’s belief that an emergency existed was objectively reasonable. The clinic argued that the police acted unreasonably by assuming that Mr. Corrigan was dangerous ultimately because he was a veteran with PTSD, and that the police’s search was unnecessary once Mr. Corrigan was in police custody outside his apartment.
Elizabeth Rademacher, a third-year law student at William & Mary, argued the case with the support of Melanie Lazor, also a third-year law student. To prepare for the oral argument, the students received helpful guidance from several faculty members, including Professors Tara Grove, Allison Orr Larsen, Jeffrey Bellin, Adam Gershowitz, Jennifer Franklin, and James Stern. Rademacher and 3L Jacob Derr were primarily responsible for the briefing. Students in the clinic practice under the supervision of Adjunct Professor Tillman J. Breckenridge, a partner at Bailey & Glasser LLP and director of the Law School’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.
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