In a published opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed an issue of first impression in our circuit: Whether a 9-1-1 "hang call" gives rise to an exception to the 4th Amendment protections against warantless searches. In Johnson v City of Memphis, et al., Johnson was killed when officers entered his home without a warrant after receiving a report from dispatch that there was a hang-up call to 9-1-1 followed by an unanswered return call from the 9-1-1 to Johnson's residence. Johnson's widow filed a lawsuit under sec. 1983, alleging that the warantlees entry by two Memphis officers into Johnson's home without a warrant violated Johnson's 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The district court granted the City's motion for summary judgment.
While hesitant to fashion a per se ruling that 9-1-1 hang calls alone satisfy the exegincy exception to the 4th Amenment's warrant requirement, the Sixth Circuit held that where there is a 9-1-1 hang call, an inability to reach the caller by phone on a return call, and the door of the residence from which the call came is open upon the officer's arrival, the officers have an objectively reasonable basis in which to believe there is someone inside the residence who needs emergency assistance -- thus, satisfying the exigency exception to the 4th Amendment.
The Court noted that the very purpose of a call to 9-1-1 is a request for emergency assistance, and any use of 9-1-1 for non-emergencies places the caller in jeopardy of being charged with a midemeanor. Common sense would dictate that we should hope that officials would follow up on our 9-1-1 calls. It is not unlikely that a caller facing medical crisis would become unconscious during a call to 9-1-1, rendering the caller unable to address the dispatcher further. A rule that limits the authority of rescuers to follow up and provide emergency aide simply because the caller cannot articulate the emergency belies common sense.