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Warrantless entry based on “community caretaker” exception; OWI — collateral attack on prior conviction

State v. Juan G. Gracia, 2013 WI 15; affirming unpublished court of appeals decision; case activity

Warrantless Entry – “community caretaker” exception

Entry into Gracia’s bedroom by police, who had linked him to a serious traffic accident, was justified by the community caretaker doctrine because the police had an objectively reasonable basis to believe Gracia needed assistance, distinguishing State v. Ultsch, 2011 WI App 17, 331 Wis. 2d 242, 793 N.W.2d 505:

¶21  Although some of the facts here appear similar to those in Ultsch, the officers in this case had an objectively reasonable basis to believe Gracia needed assistance.  First, there was more damage to Gracia’s vehicle than there was to Ultsch’s.  In Ultsch, the damage was confined to the left front fender and was described by the court of appeals as “limited damage.”  Id., ¶¶19, 28.  Here, not only was a traffic signal completely knocked down, but the front end of the vehicle was essentially caved in, pieces of the bumper were left at the scene, and the front license plate was entirely ripped off.  Second, the police consistently stated their concern for Gracia in this case, whereas in Ultsch, the police did not even tell Ultsch’s boyfriend about their suspicion that Ultsch might be injured and in need of assistance.  Although it is only one factor to be taken into consideration in judging the objective beliefs of police, the subjective intent of the officers is relevant.  In this situation, the police immediately told Gracia’s brother about their concern for Gracia’s safety.

¶22  There were other facts supporting an objectively reasonable view that Gracia was hurt. As discussed above, the damage at the scene of the accident and to the car observed at Gracia’s house was extensive.  In addition, Gracia’s brother appeared concerned about Gracia’s safety. After going into the house without police, he returned to the front door and allowed the police inside the house, and he subsequently broke open the door to Gracia’s bedroom.  The brother’s actions provide further support that there was a genuine belief that Gracia might be in need of assistance.  For all of these reasons, the police were exercising a bona fide community caretaker function.

The court also reiterates its holding in State v. Kramer, 2009 WI 14, ¶30, 315 Wis. 2d 414, 759 N.W.2d 598—that when the totality of the circumstances show an objectively reasonable basis for the community caretaker function, that basis is not negated by the officer’s subjective law enforcement concerns. The court accordingly rejects Gracia’s argument that the officers’ desire to investigate the reason for the crash cuts against the reasonableness of their belief that Gracia was hurt. (¶¶18-19).

Finally, the court finds the community caretaker function was reasonably exercised under the long established test that balances the public interest or need furthered by the officer’s conduct against the intrusion of the defendant’s privacy interest in light of: 1) the public interest in the safety of drivers in serious accidents and the apparent exigency of the situation; 2) the fact that the police did not forcibly enter, as Gracia’s brother let them in the house and forced open the bedroom door; and 3) the limited effectiveness of the alternatives to the entry—namely, leaving Gracia to his brother’s care. (¶¶23-29).

Basically an application of existing law to the facts, though with the twist that, once the police were in the home, Gracia yelled through the bedroom door for them to “go away.” The majority concludes this does not make the entry into Gracia’s bedroom unreasonable because Gracia’s brother broke open the door and, in any event, Gracia could still have been seriously hurt even though he wanted police to go away. (¶¶26, 28-29). Justice Abrahamson’s dissent takes issue with this, saying Gracia’s directive to the police to “go away” “is the same unequivocal refusal to permit entry at the threshold for which the United States Supreme Court rendered a warrantless search unreasonable in Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006).” (¶44). She and Justice Bradley also join the dissent by Justice Prosser which, after its own recital of the law and facts, concludes the entry was not a valid community caretaker function and puts special emphasis on the fact this was an entry into a home (and then a nonconsensual entry to a private room in that home) that should be subject to stricter scrutiny. (¶¶68-70, 79-82).

OWI – Collateral attack on prior conviction

Gracia validly waived counsel in a prior (1998) OWI conviction used to enhance the present OWI, as the record shows he did not hire an attorney in 1998 because he was guilty and the recommendation was for the minimum: “This demonstrates a calculated decision on Gracia’s part not to spend the money to hire an attorney in such a situation…. We agree with the circuit court’s determination that when he waived his right to counsel Gracia made a cost-benefit decision and knew what he was giving up.” (¶37) The court also affirms the court of appeals’ conclusion that the law does not require that Garcia had to understand every possible type of defense, but needed only a general understanding of the difficulties and disadvantages of self-representation. The record shows he had this understanding, so the court rejects Gracia’s claim that the explanation of the difficulties and disadvantages were not explained fully enough. (¶¶33, 36).

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