Washington Supreme Court Concludes Warrantless Search of Home Was Justified

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Caniglia v. Strom that the “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement did not extend to a residence.  The Washington Supreme Court has recently considered application of that holding in a Washington criminal case.

According to the opinion, a deputy went to a home after 911 received a call that a caregiver had not come to work that morning. The caller also reported the caregiver had been involved in a domestic incident with her husband the day before.  The deputy knocked and announced himself, but there was no answer.

He called the caregiver’s husband and told him he needed to talk with her. The deputy asked where she was and the husband said she should be at work.  The husband confirmed the minivan in the driveway was hers.  He provided his wife’s phone number.  The deputy did not tell the husband his wife was missing or ask him to come home or for consent to check the residence.

The deputy tried calling the caregiver multiple times at multiple numbers but received no answer. He called his sergeant, who advised him to open the door if it was unlocked and announce himself. He then called the 911 caller, who said the caregiver normally called if she could not make it.  He also said he recently returned a pistol to her that belonged to her husband.

The deputy opened the unlocked door and announced himself. When he did not get a response, he called his sergeant back.  The sergeant told him to enter and perform a “community caretaking” check.  When he stepped inside, he saw the caregiver lying with blood on her face and around her.  When he approached, he discovered she was deceased and had significant trauma to her face that he believed was from a gunshot.

He left the trailer and called his sergeant again.  He re-entered to search for a gun or see if it could have been suicide, without touching anything.  He went back outside and put up crime scene tape.  He then went back in and took photos.

The husband was charged with both first and second degree murder.  He moved to suppress all evidence from the trailer.

The deputy testified he was concerned about the caregiver’s well-being and went to the residence for a wellness check.  He said he did not suspect a crime.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress.  The defendant sought review by the court of appeals, and the case was certified to the Washington Supreme Court.

Two issues were certified to the Washington Supreme Court, whether the community caretaking exception to warrantless searches still applies to residential searches after Caniglia and whether the warrantless entry in this case was justified.

Fourth Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court established the concept of the “community caretaking function” in Cady v. Dombrowski, which recognized local law enforcement has functions unrelated to criminal investigations.  Courts subsequently concluded officers acted reasonably in conducting warrantless searches and seizures, and even entry into homes, in a number of circumstances.

However, in Caniglia, the majority rejected a general standalone community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement for entry into a home.

The Washington Supreme Court noted Caniglia held the community caretaking function alone was insufficient to excuse warrant requirements for law enforcement to enter a home, but warrantless entry may be appropriate with another reasonable basis for entry.

In applying the facts, the Washington Supreme Court concluded the warrantless entry was justified and not in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  There was a report a woman had not shown up for work and she could not be reached by phone. Her car was at home, but there was no answer at the door.  The door was unlocked, and the deputy saw her body in the open when he entered.  The court concluded the deputy “reasonably believed help was needed and behaved reasonably on entry.” The deputy entered the residence as part of a welfare check and not part of a criminal investigation.

Washington State Constitution

Article I, Section 7 of the Washington Constitution provides more express protection against warrantless entry into a home than the Fourth Amendment.  The Washington Supreme Court, however, has previously recognized that warrantless entry under a community caretaking function could be justified under the Washington Constitution as a health and safety check.  The court first established a balancing test for a court to determine such an entry is reasonable in Kalmas v. Wagner.  The court must balance the individual’s interest in being free from police interference against the public interest in the community caretaking function.

Later, in State v. Kinzy, the court established a test for emergency aid exceptions.  For the exception to apply, the officer must have had a subjective belief a person likely needed assistance for health or safety purposes, and a reasonable person in that situation would have a similar belief.  Additionally, there must be a reasonable basis to associate that need with the location searched.

The court further established that law enforcement’s actions must be generally unrelated to criminal investigation and the community caretaking exception cannot be used as a pretext for criminal investigation.  State v. Boisselle. The court must consider the totality of the circumstances, the officer’s subjective intent, and the objective reasonableness of law enforcement’s actions.

The court concluded that Washington case applying Article I, Section 7, was consistent with Caniglia.  Washington case law required an underlying reason for entry for emergency aid or a health and safety check.  Washington’s emergency aid exception test requires more than the Fourth Amendment “reasonableness” test in requiring both subjective and objective belief of a need for assistance and a reasonable connection between the needed assistance and the location.

The court concluded that there was nothing in the trial court’s fact findings indicating the deputy knew a crime had occurred before he went into the residence.  No one reported a crime and there was no evidence of a crime when he arrived at the home.  The trial court found the deputy’s actions were motivated by a genuine concern for the woman’s health and safety and were not a pretext for criminal investigation.  The woman’s employer reported she did not show up for work or contact them. Her husband confirmed she was should have been at work.  She had made multiple reports of domestic incidents to law enforcement and her employer.  She did not answer the phone.  Her car was at the residence, but she did not respond to the deputy when he knocked.

The defendant argued that the deputy could not have reasonably believed there was an emergency when he testified he did not know if there was anything wrong with the woman.  The Washington Supreme Court rejected this argument, noting he testified he was concerned about her safety and under the circumstances thought something could be wrong with her.  The trial court’s conclusions of both subjective and objective belief were supported by the its fact findings and the record.

In weighing the public versus individual interest, the court noted the individual interest of a person who may have committed a crime does not outweigh the individual interest of a person who may be a victim or may be hurt.  Before the deputy entered the home, there was a possibility the woman was alive and injured.  The court concluded her interest in being found outweighed her husband’s privacy interest.

The court then considered whether the deputy’s actions after entry were reasonable and concluded “the intrusion . . . was minimal.” He stepped into the unlocked home and announced himself. The woman’s body was in plain view once he stepped inside.  The court determined the trial court entered sufficient findings to support its conclusion the deputy’s entry had not been a pretext.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress and remanded.  Justices Whitener and Gordon McCloud dissented, disagreeing there was evidence of an immediate need for assistance under the facts of the case.

Contact an Experienced Seattle Criminal Defense Lawyer

The application of an exception to the warrant requirement is fact-specific.  If you are facing criminal charges, you need a skilled Washington criminal defense attorney on your side.  Schedule your consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC, by calling (206) 622-6562.



Contact Information