Typically police cannot search places where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy unless they have a warrant. However, there are exceptions that apply such as when the evidence is in plain view, the search occurs as part of a lawful arrest, the person consents to be searched, or the police are in “hot pursuit.” In addition to these familiar exceptions, there are a number of lesser known exceptions that include ‘community caregiver’.
The community caregiver exception applies when police find evidence of a crime while acting to protect the public from a potentially dangerous situation as opposed to acting as investigators. One example of this might be a case where you have been injured in a car accident, and a search of the car for other victims or dangerous conditions yields evidence of illegal drugs or weapons. In this case, even if officers have obtained evidence through a warrantless search, it can be admissible in court under the community caretaking exception.
This exception originally did, in fact, take shape from the search and seizure of evidence in cars based largely on the notion that citizens enjoyed a lesser degree of privacy in their cars than they do in their homes. Subsequently, some state courts across the nation have been applying the exception to allow search and seizures at residences.
Recently, while citing the right of police to exercise the ‘community caretaker’ exception, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals ruling in an alleged unreasonable search and seizure case. In the 4-3 decision, the court effectively broadened the exception to allow police to seize and use evidence obtained from private places without the owner’s consent to a search warrant, which some believe runs contrary to Fourth Amendment protections.
The Wisconsin case involved a search of a residence performed by police in 2012. Officers arrived at the residence of a man suspected of assaulting his brother and, while at the home, searched a locked room without consent where they found a marijuana growing operation. The finding resulted in a drug conviction despite the defendant’s move to suppress the evidence. The defendant appealed the decision and won, but ultimately the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision finding that the community caretaker exception was warranted after all.
The right to exercise the exception has played out in cases across the nation with similar mixed results. Federal circuit courts are split on whether the caretaking exception applies to home searches in particular. A few circuits have held that this exception justifies warrantless home searches while others say that it applies only to auto searches. Some courts have not ruled directly on the issue for lack of clarity. With all the disagreements surrounding the community caretaker exception, the law may very well land before the US Supreme Court for resolution. In the meantime, those charged as a result of evidence obtained in a questionable search are wholly at the mercy of various interpretations of the exception.
If you have been subjected to an unreasonable search or seizure resulting in a charge of illegal weapons possession, drug possession or possession of stolen property, contact the criminal defense law offices of Andrew C Ladd LLC for help. With the fines, possible jail time, loss of reputation and other penalties that come with a illegal drug, weapons or theft charge convictions, it is important to work with an experienced team of lawyers to defend you against these charges. Contact us today.
Source: Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, “State high court broadens police search, seizure power in 4-3 decision”, By Bruce Vielmetti, February 11, 2016.