Where police officers entered house at the request of building inspectors who were lawfully present to assist with immediate evacuation, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on Fourth Amendment claims.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Sara L. Ellis.

In June 2016, an Airbnb guest of Antoinette Wonsey reported to police that his personal belongings, including cash and a laptop computer, disappeared after he lost consciousness from a seizure.

Chicago police Sgt. Antonio Valentin drove to Wonsey’s house to investigate and arrived at 8:30 a.m. The front gate to Wonsey’s house was locked and no one responded when Valentin rang the doorbell. Valentin then attempted to open the gate by reaching his arm around and trying to open it from the inside. When that did not work, Valentin called the police station and spoke with the theft victim, who gave Valentin the entry code to unlock the gate.

After opening the gate, Valentin went to the front door, knocked and rang the doorbell. Two men opened the door and allowed Valentin inside.

Shortly after, another officer arrived to assist. The officers saw residents scattered throughout the first floor who appeared to have been sleeping in the living room areas. As Valentin discussed the theft victim’s claim with the residents, Wonsey, who had been asleep until that point, entered the dining room and joined the conversation.

After Valentin asked Wonsey for permission to see where the theft victim was staying, Wonsey refused and told the officers to leave. The officers complied and Wonsey walked them outside.

Five days later, prompted by a police request, the city’s buildings department sent out a team of inspectors to Wonsey’s house. The inspectors were accompanied by five police officers.

The inspectors and officers were let through Wonsey’s gate by a man who was sitting on her back porch. The group then walked to the front of the house and met Wonsey, who willingly allowed the inspectors into her home.

The inspectors recorded 32 code violations and concluded that the house should be immediately evacuated. Wonsey later sued the city and some police officers under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for the two encounters.

Wonsey claimed that the defendants’ actions violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. After discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims. Wonsey appealed.

The appellate panel began by addressing the first unlawful search and seizure claim. The panel noted that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on warrantless searches did not apply when voluntary consent had been obtained, either from the individual whose property was searched or from a third party who possesses common authority over the premises.

The panel noted that Wonsey’s Airbnb guest had given the police the gate code and two other residents had allowed the police into the property, thereby providing consent. The panel stated that Wonsey had failed to supply any evidence to show that Valentin had failed to obtain consent or that the consent he obtained was invalid.

Finally, the panel turned to Wonsey’s claims based on the events of the day of the building inspection. The panel noted that the district court rejected these claims on the basis of qualified immunity.

The panel stated that Wonsey did not dispute that police entered her house on that date at the request of building inspectors, who were lawfully present, to help with an evacuation given an immediate safety concern.

The panel found that under those circumstances, a reasonable officer could have believed that entry was lawful.

As a result, the panel affirmed the district court’s decision.

Antoinette Wonsey v. City of Chicago, et al.

No. 19-1171

Writing for the court: Judge Michael B. Brennan

Concurring: Judges William J. Bauer and Amy St. Eve

Released: Oct. 15, 2019