Michigan v. Clifford

RESPONDENT: Raymond Clifford and Emma Jean Clifford
LOCATION: Clifford Residence

DOCKET NO.: 82-357
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 464 US 287 (1984)
ARGUED: Oct 05, 1983
DECIDED: Jan 11, 1984

Janice M. Joyce Bartee - on behalf of Petitioner
K. Preston Oade, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Early in the morning of October 18, 1980, a fire was reported at the Clifford residence in Detroit, Michigan. The Cliffords were out of town, so the Detroit Fire Department arrived, extinguished the fire, and left by around 7 a.m. An hour later, the fire investigator received a notice to inspect the house for evidence of arson. When he and his partner arrived on the scene at 1 p.m., they found a work crew from the Cliffords’ insurance company that the Cliffords had contacted to secure the house. When the work crew had cleared the basement, the fire investigators began to inspect it without obtaining either consent or a warrant. They determined that the fire had started in the basement, where they found several fuel cans and a crock pot attached to a timer, all of which was seized as evidence.

Raymond and Emma Jean Clifford were arrested and charged with arson. At the preliminary examination held to determine probable cause, they moved to suppress the evidence as the products of an illegal search made without warrant or consent. The motion was denied. Prior to the trial, there was an evidentiary hearing to determine the admissibility of the evidence, and it was admitted because there were exigent circumstances surrounding the search. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and held that there were no exigent circumstances that justified the search.


Does the Fourth Amendment allow for arson investigators to inspect the scene of a recent fire without a warrant in the absence of exigent circumstances and consent?

Media for Michigan v. Clifford

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 05, 1983 in Michigan v. Clifford

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Michigan against Clifford.

Mrs. Bartee, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Janice M. Joyce Bartee:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Fifteen years ago this Court decided the landmark case of Terry versus Ohio.

It looked to the language of the Fourth Amendment to articulate a promise previously unrecognized; that is although all seizures of persons, while within the Fourth Amendment, not every seizure requires probable cause to arrest to be reasonable under the first clause of the Amendment.

Today we ask this Court to again focus its attention upon the language of the Fourth Amendment and recognize that it contains two separate, distinct, and coequal clauses, the reasonableness clause and the warrant clause, and to hold that administrative inspection oriented searches fall without the warrant and within the reasonableness clause.

More specifically, with regard to this case, we are urging this Court to hold if there is a fire and firefighters must enter the premises to distinguish the fire, fire investigators may also enter the premises within reasonable time after the flames have been extinguished to conduct an investigation of reasonable scope and intensity to determine the cause and origin of the fire.

We contend this initial uncontested, unwarranted investigative intrusion, with or without probably cause, is justified by the mere fact that a fire has occurred.

The bare language of the Fourth Amendment requires only that searches and seizures be reasonable and that if and when a warrant shall issue it must be based upon probable cause to believe sizeable items will be found in the premises, supported by a sworn affidavit and particularly describing the place to be searched and the items to be seized.

Two views have emerged from this Court regarding the Fourth Amendment requirements.

The prevailing view to date holds that a search warrant is always required except when the facts and circumstances fit within a few carefully defined exceptions.

This view focuses upon whether the failure to obtain a warrant is reasonable.

The second view recognizes that this Court, starting with Camara, has forced administrative searches unnaturally into the warrant clause and that this causes serious problems.

In applying the warrant preference indiscriminately to all searches, rather than simply applying them to the seizure-oriented searches as intended, this Court has been forced to distort the concept of probable cause.

It is our contention, as is maintained by the second view, that the Fourth Amendment guarantees searches will not be unreasonable and that neither the absence of a warrant nor the practicability of not obtaining a warrant is dispositive of whether the Fourth Amendment has been violated.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mrs. Bartee, I suppose you could also prevail if the Court were to say that the facts of this case fitted within the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement, could you not?

Janice M. Joyce Bartee:

The precise holding by this Court in Michigan v. Tyler dealt with a subsequent entry which was made after initial entry was made while the flames were smoldering.

The precise issue before this Court now deals with an initial entry which was made six hours after the flames had been distinguished.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Unless, Mrs. Bartee, the entry of the investigating arson squad is part and parcel of the initial entry of the firefighters.

In that connection, I would like to know whether, in the jurisdiction in question, the arson squad would have visited the Cliffords' home even without a report that the fire was of suspicious origin.

Is it a routine thing?

Do they always go?

Janice M. Joyce Bartee:

Fire investigators investigate approximately 130 to 160 fires a day.

Well, I am sorry, there are approximately 130 to 160 fires a day.

They investigate approximately 20 of them and they do that in a priority order which starts off... If there is a major explosion or a homicide on the scene, they leave wherever they are... If they are in the middle of an investigation, they leave and go to that site.

They then go down and determine what is priority from there on.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

What determines whether the arson squad would go to a fire scene?

Janice M. Joyce Bartee:

I think it is a matter... There are many arsons which are never investigated.

It depends upon the degree of damage.

And, in this case... This case was determined to be a priority case because a police officer was involved and they always investigate a police officer's house if they possibly can.