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Warrantless search of home was not justified under community caretaker doctrine

State v. Dyllon A. Maddix, 2013 WI App 64; case activity

The warrantless search of an apartment by police who responded to a domestic disturbance call was not justified under the community caretaker doctrine:

¶37      …. Under the facts of this case, after the officers validly exercised the community caretaker function by entering the apartment, addressing the apparent domestic situation, and making a reasonable assessment of the need for any further assistance or protection, there was simply no objectively reasonable basis to conclude that searching the apartment was justified under the community caretaker function.  To conclude otherwise, in our view, could allow this exception to justify virtually any residential “sweep” as part of a police response to an alleged domestic disturbance.

Police heard screams when they arrived at Maddix’s apartment due to a domestic disturbance call. On entering the apartment they encountered Maddix and  a woman,  and they appeared to be the only people there.  After interviewing Maddix and the woman separately, the officers were “not satisfied” with the woman’s explanation as to why she screamed because she said she was scared but didn’t know what she was scared of; thus, the police believed a third person, who either caused the screaming or was a victim, was in the apartment. (¶¶4-8). The officers’ belief was not objectively reasonable, compared to State v. Pinkard, 2010 WI 81, 327 Wis. 2d 346, 785 N.W.2d 592, State v. Ultsch, 2011 WI App 17, 331 Wis. 2d 242, 793 N.W.2d 505, and State v. Gracia, 2013 WI 15, 345 Wis. 2d 488, 826 N.W.2d 87:

¶27      Unlike in PinkardUltsch, and Gracia, where the officers had evidence pointing concretely to the possibility that a member of the public was in need of assistance (a damaged vehicle or drug use coupled with an open doorway), here no evidence directly corroborated the officers’ theory that another person was present in the apartment, who was either a crime victim or a perpetrator.  Nor, unlike in Pinkard and Gracia, where another person indicated concern for the well-being of one or more persons (an anonymous tip and a brother’s direction), was there any corroboration that someone was in need of assistance here.  ….  While it was certainly a physical possibility that one or more persons were in the apartment, there were no objectively reasonable grounds to suspect that the disturbance involved persons other than Maddix and his girlfriend, who each independently told the officers that they had been arguing about their own relationship.

¶28      Moreover, based on the testimony, the officers were present in the apartment for twenty-five to thirty minutes prior to initiating the search of the rooms in the apartment.  During that time, the record lacks any evidence supporting the theory that anyone else was present, such as noises, nervous behavior by Maddix or the female, or statements by either of them that implied the presence of another person.  We need not speculate on what additional evidence might have been enough, because here there was virtually no such evidence.  ….

The circuit court found the officers to be credible and sincere in their belief another person was in the apartment, but the court of appeals stresses that the standard is an objective one; thus, “[i]t is not enough that the officers subjectively thought that perhaps someone else was in the apartment; what matters is whether they possessed any facts that would lead to a reasonable conclusion that someone else was present to justify a search to render assistance or protection.” (¶30).

For more on Gracia, see here; on Ultschhere; and on Pinkardhere.

The court also holds that even if the search was a bona fide exercise of the officers’ community caretaker function, the public interest in the search was outweighed by the privacy intrusion, given the lack of exigency and the existence of reasonable alternatives to the search the police conducted. (¶¶31-36).

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