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SCOW expands community caretaker doctrine; lets Justice R. Bradley break tie vote

State v. Charles V. Matalonis, 2016 WI 7, 2/10/16, reversing an unpublished court of appeals decision; case activity (including briefs)

This is a painful loss for the defense. Matalonis won suppression at the court of appeals. The State filed a petition for review, which, of course, was granted. SCOW held oral argument and took a tentative vote before Justice Crooks died. After his death, the vote changed to 3-3. So you’d expect this case to end in a tie, which would affirm the court of appeals’ decision. But that did not happen.  Instead, though she has not participated in any other case argued and decided before she joined SCOW,  Justice R. Bradley emerged to cast the decisive vote against the defendant here. Even worse, Justice Prosser says the majority opinion extends the community caretaker exception just enough to swallow the 4th Amendment. Ouch.

Around 3:00 a.m. police were called to help a man who was bleeding. He gave inconsistent versions about how he was beaten. He said that he lived nearby with his brother. Police followed a trail of blood to the house of the defendant (the brother), knocked on the door, and were allowed inside. The defendant told the police that he lived alone, that he had just defended himself in a fight with his brother, and that his brother had just left. The defendant permitted the police to enter the house to confirm that no other injured persons were there. The police observed blood splattered about. They ordered the defendant to stay in the living room and went to the second floor where they spotted drug paraphernalia and encountered a locked door with a few drops of blood on it. They smelled marijuana and heard a fan running behind the door. They told the defendant to give them the key, and he refused.  Somehow they got it anyway, opened the door, and discovered marijuana plants.

The issue is whether the police were exercising a bona fide community caretaker function when they forced their way into the locked room without a warrant. In ruling for the defendant, the court of appeals stressed that in previous cases approving community caretaker searches of homes “officers had specific concerns about the welfare of people known to be present in the homes when the officers entered the homes.” COA decision, ¶24 (citing State v. Pinkard, 2010 WI 81, 327 Wis. 2d 346, 785 N.W.2d 592 and State v. Gracia, 2013 WI 15, 345 Wis. 2d 488, 826 N.W.2d 87).  Here, the police had no information that any injured persons were in any room of the house. The majority says, in effect, “so what?” “The Fourth Amendment does not inflexibly require that officers be concerned about specific ‘known’ individuals in order to be acting as community caretakers.” Slip op. ¶43.

The majority also rejects the idea that, once inside the home, the police had received evidence that rendered their community caretaker search unnecessary (i.e. the defendant was alone and explained the source of the blood).

¶51 The officers’ community care taking logically would have been fulfilled only after they had checked the areas of the home where persons might be located. The circuit court found that “[the officers] searched only in areas where there was blood found and they didn’t search drawers or places where obviously people could not hide but only rooms and larger areas where bodies might be found.” This conclusion is not clearly erroneous.

¶52 During his search, Officer Ruha located numerous signs of drug use. This does not invalidate the search. “[W]hen under the totality of the circumstances an objectively reasonable basis for the community caretaker function is shown, that determination is not negated by the officer’s subjective law enforcement concerns.” Gracia, 345 Wis. 2d 488, ¶19.

Justice Prosser’s dissent (joined by Abrahamson and A.W. Bradley) sounds a familiar alarm (see our posts on Pinkard and Gracia):

¶110 An open-ended search for occupants illustrates the danger that results when the majority’s description of the community caretaker function combines with its statement of the public interest present in this case. As occurred here, officers could point to facts and——without demonstrating probable cause or even reasonable suspicion——use those facts to set forth a theory that a person in a building requires immediate police assistance. Given that the public would then have an interest in the officers assisting the theoretical person inside the building, officers could enter the building and search it to determine whether there is in fact a person in need of assistance. Once officers enter the building, the plain view doctrine allows them to seize evidence of unrelated criminal activity that they encounter——even if the search ultimately reveals that the person to whom they attempted to provide care remains purely theoretical. Furthermore, officers may conduct their search for the theoretical person who might need care regardless of whether other law enforcement objectives affect their desire to enter the building——such as probable cause or reasonable suspicion that they will encounter evidence of unrelated criminal activity inside——so long as a factual basis supports their community caretaking theory.

¶112 But the majority’s embrace of a broad, ever-expanding version of the exception risks transforming a shield for evidence encountered incidental to community caretaking into an investigatory sword. Wisconsin already applies a generous interpretation of the exception. See 3 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure § 6.6 n.4, at 595 (5th ed. 2012) (“Because [Cady] stressed ‘the distinction between motor vehicles and dwelling places,’ it is commonly responded that the Cady doctrine is limited to vehicles.”). Allowing law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless searches based on a mere theory of community need——and without making a showing of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion——completely undermines the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Justice Abrahamson’s dissent notes that R. Bradley did not participate in 5 other cases heard and decided before she joined the court, but then she cast the deciding vote in this case. Slip op. ¶¶68-79. Abrahamson spotlights New Richmond News v. City of New Richmond, a case SCOW voted to take on bypass. It was argued and tentatively decided while Crooks was on the court. After he died, the vote changed to 3-3.  SCOW then issued a per curiam opinion stating that the case had been decided before R. Bradley joined the court so the case was being remanded to the court of appeals for a decision. Abrahamson’s dissent argues that when a new justice joins SCOW the fair procedure is to ask the justices who originally participated in the case to decide whether it should be reargued with the new justice on board.  She writes: “No precedent appears to exist in the United States Supreme Court or in this court for a new justice who did not participate in oral argument to participate in the case without reargument.” Slip op. ¶81.

On Point is looking forward to the cert petition in this case!

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