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Steigler v. Anderson

decided: April 18, 1974.



Adams, Hunter and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hunter


JAMES HUNTER, III, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Herbert F. Steigler was convicted in the Superior Court of Delaware on three counts of first degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in connection with a fire in the home of appellant on October 19, 1968. On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Steigler v. State, 277 A.2d 662 (1971). Appellant filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, and in a brief order, the Supreme Court vacated appellant's death penalty. Steigler v. Delaware, 408 U.S. 939, 33 L. Ed. 2d 760, 92 S. Ct. 2872, citing Stewart v. Massachusetts, 408 U.S. 845, 33 L. Ed. 2d 744, 92 S. Ct. 2845 (1972). Proceeding in forma pauperis, appellant petitioned the United States District Court for the District of Delaware for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court denied the petition, 360 F. Supp. 1286, and we affirm.

In the early morning hours of October 19, 1968, fire erupted at appellant's home in Deerhurst, New Castle County, Delaware. Appellant's wife summoned the aid of a nearby fire company which responded promptly and brought the fire under control, but not before appellant's daughter, mother-in-law and father-in-law had died. During the course of extinguishing the blaze, attempting to rescue persons trapped in the house, securing the premises and investigating for the causes of the fire, various firemen, including Deputy Fire Marshall Richard Lynch, discovered several items of physical evidence of arson. Openly situated throughout the house were numerous glass containers, some broken and some filled with gasoline. Sections of the rug upon which several of the containers had been placed were soaked with gasoline. Surmising from this and other evidence that the fire was the result of arson, and having assisted in removing at least one corpse, Lynch placed a call to the New Castle County Fireboard requesting that the Delaware State Police be dispatched to the scene. Shortly thereafter Sgt. Daniel Bramble of the Delaware State Police and several of his colleagues arrived and, without a warrant, proceeded to remove the physical evidence of arson discovered by Lynch and the various firemen. The police also took pictures of some of this evidence and the surrounding area from which they were removed. These photos and physical evidence were admitted into evidence at trial over appellant's objection. Appellant contends that since the police did not obtain a search warrant, his rights under the fourth amendment were violated and hence the evidence in question was inadmissible.

Sgt. Bramble of the Delaware State Police interviewed appellant on four separate occasions between October 19 (morning of the fire) and October 24, before charging him with arson and murder. On none of these occasions was appellant informed of his Miranda rights, which appellant contends violated his fifth amendment rights.


While searches and seizures must generally be undertaken by state officials only after obtaining a search warrant,*fn1 the Supreme Court has recognized a number of situations in which a warrantless search may be lawful.*fn2 In each of these situations the Supreme Court found exigent circumstances rendering imperative official action without first obtaining a warrant. We believe a similar situation existed in the present case.

Although it is not clear whether appellant concedes this, we think it is beyond question that firemen have a right to enter a premise to suppress a fire without having to obtain a warrant.*fn3 We simply do not think that a "search" in the fourth amendment sense occurs when firemen enter a burning home to suppress a fire.*fn4 Moreover, seeking out and rescuing trapped occupants, ventilating the building after the fire is brought under control, searching for any smoldering fires and cleaning up prior to departing all involve proper fire fighting functions which cannot reasonably be viewed as searches under the fourth amendment.

In any event, even if such actions of firemen were searches under the fourth amendment, we think no warrant was required since a more exigent circumstance is difficult to imagine.*fn5 We think it readily follows from this that any evidence of arson seen by firemen in plain view while performing these functions may be seized without first obtaining a warrant. See e.g., Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 464-73, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564, 91 S. Ct. 2022 (1971); Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 236, 19 L. Ed. 2d 1067, 88 S. Ct. 992 (1968); Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23, 42-43, 10 L. Ed. 2d 726, 83 S. Ct. 1623 (1963).

Not all of the evidence objected to by appellant, however, was seen by the firemen during the course of rescuing trapped occupants, suppressing the fire and securing the premises. Some of the evidence was found while Lynch conducted his investigation into the cause of the fire.*fn6

Although Lynch was authorized by statute to investigate "the origin or circumstances"*fn7 of any fire in Delaware, we recognize this does not necessarily end our inquiry. Regardless of state authority, the acts of state officials are judged by federal standards when fourth amendment violations are claimed. E.g., Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 223, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1669, 80 S. Ct. 1437 (1960). Thus, even though Lynch had authority under state law to investigate the cause of the fire, the question remains whether the fourth amendment required that he first obtain a search warrant.

Appellant relies heavily on the companion cases of Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 18 L. Ed. 2d 930, 87 S. Ct. 1727 (1967) and See v. Seattle, 387 U.S. 541, 18 L. Ed. 2d 943, 87 S. Ct. 1737 (1967), in which the Supreme Court held that the fourth amendment forbids warrantless area inspections for violations of municipal housing and business code provisions. We are not faced, however, with the situation of a fire marshall inspecting a home for violations of fire code provisions. Nor are we faced with the situation (and therefore we express no ...

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