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Warrantless entry to home wasn’t justified under community caretaker rule

State v. Charles V. Matalonis, 2014AP108-CR, District 2/4, 12/23/14 (not recommended for publication), petition for review granted 4/17/15; case activity

The warrantless search of Matalonis’s home, which led to the discovery of marijuana, was not justified under the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement because there was no reasonable basis to believe there was an injured person in the home.

Officers were dispatched for a medical call to the home of Antony Matalonis, the defendant’s brother. They found Antony to be intoxicated, battered, and bleeding, and he gave them conflicting information about having been beaten up outside a bar. After Antony was taken to the hospital, officers found a trail of blood outside his home and followed it to the defendant’s home, where officers heard unidentified “loud bangs” coming from inside. When the defendant answered the officers’ knock on his door, he was out of breath but uninjured. The officers explained they had followed the trail of blood and needed to come in to make sure no one inside was injured. Matalonis said he had been in a fight with his brother and let the police in. They immediately conducted a “protective sweep,” finding blood in various places, including on a locked door, and marijuana paraphernalia. The officers asked Matalonis to open the locked door so they could make sure there was no injured person in the room and threatened to bust it down if he didn’t open it. Matalonis then admitted he had marijuana plants growing in the room. (¶¶3-8).

While the initial entry to Matalonis’s home was lawful, the “protective sweep” is lawful only if it was justified under the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. To meet this exception, the state must establish two things: 1) that the police had to be acting under a bona fide community caretaker function—that is, based on the totality of the circumstances, there must have been an objectively reasonable basis to believe a member of the public was in need of assistance, State v. Ultsch, 2011 WI App 17, ¶15, 331 Wis. 2d 242, 793 N.W.2d 505; State v. Gracia, 2013 WI 15, ¶17, 345 Wis. 2d 488, 826 N.W.2d 87; and 2) that the public interest must outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the defendant such that the community caretaker function was reasonably exercised within the context of the home, State v. Pinkard, 2010 WI 81, ¶29, 327 Wis. 2d 346, 785 N.W.2d 592.

Comparing the circumstances in this case to other cases involving the community caretaker exception, the court of appeals concludes the officers did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that anyone was injured inside Matalonis’s home:

¶24      In Pinkard and Gracia, the officers had specific concerns about the welfare of people known to be present in the homes when the officers entered the homes. However, the present case is more similar to [State v.Maddix[, 2013 WI App 64, 348 Wis. 2d 179, 831 N.W.2d 778,] in that the officers in this case did not have before them any evidence pointing “concretely to the possibility that a member of the public was in need of assistance” inside Matalonis’s home. Id., ¶27. Matalonis’s brother informed the officers that he had been beat up, but he did not give any indication that any other individuals had been harmed in the fight. Furthermore, although Matalonis’s brother informed officers that he had been beat up by multiple people, his story was inconsistent and the location of the fight indicated by Matalonis’s brother was not consistent with the officers’ investigation. When the officers spoke with Matalonis, Matalonis informed the officers that he and his brother had gotten into a fight, which explained the blood observed by the officers inside the residence, and that his brother had left, which explained the trail of blood followed by the officers to Matalonis’s home. Although there are conflicting versions of how Matalonis’s brother sustained his injuries, in no version is there reference to any other person being injured.

¶25      The State asserts that the officers “were [] not required to conclude that only [Matalonis’s brother] had been injured” and that it was reasonable for them to believe that another injured person was inside Matalonis’s home. However, the absence of contrary evidence alone does not provide an objectively reasonable basis. Although it is possible, on the lower end of the possibility spectrum, that another person was injured inside Matalonis’s residence, applying the objective standard in this case, we conclude that the evidence known to the officers did not provide an “objectively reasonable basis” to believe that a member of the public was in need of assistance. A mere possibility that another person may be injured without any other evidence that concretely points to the possibility that a member of the public required assistance does not meet the more demanding objective reasonable basis standard. See Ultsch, 331 Wis. 2d 242, ¶15.

The state also fails to establish the second part of the exception (¶¶31-36), primarily because the degree of the public’s interest and the exigency of the situation are diminished given there was no objectively reasonable basis to believe that the blood the officer’s found belonged to anyone other than Matalonis’s brother, who had left and was receiving care. (¶32).

Judge Blanchard dissents, concluding that: (1) based on the circumstances as they unfolded, which included at least one seriously injured person and conflicting accounts of how that person became injured, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that a warrantless search of the residence for other injured persons was necessary to address a serious safety concern; and (2) the public interest in the search outweighed the intrusions on Matalonis’s privacy. (¶¶38-48).

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