The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits agents of the federal or a state government from searching private property without a valid search warrant. In general, this means that government agents may not search individuals or their property without a warrant issued by a court upon a showing of so-called “probable cause” that evidence of a crime is in the premises.
But few legal protections are absolute, and those of the Fourth Amendment is no exception. Because improperly seized evidence cannot be used to convict a defendant, courts have often struggled to reach a balance between protection of personal privacy and legitimate and reasonable law enforcement conduct. Numerous “warrantless search” exceptions have resulted, including:
- “Plain View”- Evidence was in plain sight of an officer who was otherwise legally on the premises.
- “Search Incident to Lawful Arrest” – Evidence of a crime is discovered during a search of a lawfully arrested suspect or his nearby surroundings.
- “Exigent Circumstances” – This is something of a catchall exception. It is usually associated with situations involving a belief that a suspect is escaping or that evidence is about to be destroyed.
The “Community Caretaking” Exception
The premise of this exception is that while the primary role of police is to investigate crimes and apprehend perpetrators, they also regularly respond to non-criminal situations in which a person or persons appear to be in distress or danger. If, while acting in this “caretaker” role, an officer comes upon evidence of a crime in plain view, it may be impractical to obtain a warrant and return to perform a search. In this case, the officer may make seize the evidence without a warrant.
Some commenters believe this exception represents an erosion of constitutional protections against illegal government searches, while others contend it is simply a byproduct of the changing role of the police in present-day American life.
Although the United States Supreme Court has limited the community caretaking exception to instances involving injured or unresponsive motor vehicle operators, state courts in California and elsewhere have extended it to dwellings.
The caretaker exception is not without limits, however. Recognizing the risk that the exception can be used as a subterfuge, the California Supreme Court has made clear that a responding officer’s belief that an emergency exists must be objectively reasonable under all the circumstances. This determination must, of course, be made on a case-by-case basis.
California’s endorsement of the community caretaker exception originated with the 1956 California Supreme Court decision in People v. Roberts. In that case, officers were given access to the defendant’s apartment by a building manager in response to “moans and groans” of distress. They searched the entire apartment for a person in distress. Though as it happened nobody else was present, they did observe a stolen radio. The Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision to allow the stolen item into evidence, concluding that entry was made to render aid and was reasonable under the circumstances.
In a very recent case that cites Williams, the California Court of Appeal applied the community caretaker exception in People v. Oveida, upholding the trail court’s decision to allow the prosecution to introduce incriminating evidence found in Mr. Oveida’s residence.
Ovieda had a documented history of suicide attempts. His sister called 911 to report that he was agitated and again threatening suicide, this time with a firearm. Oveida testified that he was outside the home, had calmed down by the time police arrived and that he told police he was. Officers nevertheless entered the home. In the living area and in the garage and observed weapons, ammunition and marijuana cultivation equipment.
The Court concluded that in light of Mr. Oveida’s history and the suicide threat that prompted the 911 call , the officers were justified in a warrantless entry in order to make a “cursory” search for weapons or victims. The weapons and other evidence discovered in plain sight were therefore properly admitted.