The Indiana Supreme Court's recent decision in Barnes v. State has received significant public attention. Some commentators have complained that the decision reverses common-law precedent allowing citizens to forcibly resist police who attempt to enter their homes unlawfully. Others have supported the decision as an important step toward preserving the peace by not allowing citizens to take the law into their own hands. And yet others, echoing the dissenting opinions, have suggested the Court reached the right result for the wrong reason by deciding the case on a needlessly sweeping ground rather than on a narrow basis presented by the specific factual record. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Barnes strikes the right balance and advances appropriate policy, and the General Assembly may decide to address this issue legislatively.Although the issue often evokes intense emotional reactions, this same issue has been ruled upon similarly by approximately 40 other states.
To shed light, rather than just heat, in this situation, the Indianapolis Bar Association provides some background and analysis on the Barnes decision. In addition, the Indianapolis Bar Association has offered this analysis to members of the media to assist them in their efforts to inform the public and has also made attorneys available to comment on several different facets of this decision if needed.
Court decisions going back centuries have discussed citizens' right to reasonably resist unlawful arrest by police, using no more force than necessary. This principle has been an important bulwark against improper state action. The application of this right in the modern environment is complex, however, for two reasons. First, the law governing when police may lawfully enter a home is complex and changes frequently. Second, the stakes are higher because enforcement officers have a legitimate and proper fear of well-armed resistance and are trained to take action against such resistance that may include lethal force, raising the stakes for anyone trying to keep police out of their homes.
As to the first issue, there are many circumstances in which police may lawfully enter a home without a warrant. In fact, on the very day the Indiana Supreme Court decided the Barnes case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case approving warrantless police entry into a home when police reasonably believed those inside were destroying evidence. Police also may enter a home without a warrant when they reasonably believe the safety of someone inside is at risk. In Barnes, police had been called for an incident of domestic violence and could have believed they needed to enter the home to protect a potential victim.
As to the second issue, the public is all too familiar with situations in which police have been injured or killed when attempting to make a lawful arrest. Anyone resisting a police officer attempting to enter that person's home may be met with force (in Barnes, the defendant was subdued after being tasered). Police are trained to be careful, but they also are trained to use force when necessary and have many tools at their disposal that raise the risks of anyone trying to forcibly resist police entry.
The Indiana Supreme Court also pointed out in Barnes that citizens have more remedies than ever before to address unlawful police entry. The courts are open for civil-rights complaints seeking damage awards for improper or unlawful entry or search. Police complaint boards can discipline officers who break the law. And any evidence found in an unlawful search may not be used in a prosecution. The flip side is that these remedies do nothing for the law-abiding citizen who faces jail time because he tried to defend his home from entry by a police officer.
The Indiana Supreme Court may have the opportunity to revisit this issue. Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said he will support a request to decide the case on narrower grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court may be asked to decide whether federal law was violated here. And there may be efforts to pass legislative clarification.
Above all, it is important to keep the debate focused on the legal issues, separate from political influences and unwarranted negative attacks upon the judiciary. Hopefully, we should all agree on the laudable intent behind the decision – protecting public and officer safety by channeling legal disputes out of the neighborhoods and into the courtroom.
As in many controversial areas in the law, the only safe bet is that the Barnes decision is likely not the final word on the subject, and, as it should, the law will continue to evolve to meet the needs of a civilized society.