case law update

Community Caretaking Not Applicable to Residential Searches Seeking Fleeing Suspect

Where an officer was indisputably engaged in an ongoing criminal investigation when a warrantless search occurred, the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment did not apply, the First Circuit recently held.

In 2010, Boston police responded to a report of a robbery and pursued the robber until they last saw him run into the backyard of a house in a residential area. One officer recounted that “a victim” pointed her and another officer in the direction of a specific address, to which officers then went. The officers looked into the window of the home and entered through an unlocked door when no one answered. The officers called a canine unit for support, and a search of the residence ensued. The only person home was Scott Matalon, the owner of the home, who officers arrested and who was subsequently acquitted.

Matalon then sued the officers and the City of Boston under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming the officers violated his rights through an unreasonable search and for excessive use of force. A jury  was instructed on exigent circumstances doctrine but found no exigent circumstance to excuse the warrantless entry, and it awarded Matalon $50,000 in damages and one of the defendant officers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

On appeal, the appellant officer asserted the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment made her search of Matalon’s home legal and thus exempted her from any liability in Matalon’s claim. The First Circuit disagreed.

For the sake of argument, the First Circuit assumed – but did not hold – that the community caretaking exception may apply to warrantless residential searches. It then acknowledged the nebulous parameters of the exception before stating the “heartland” of the exception was well-defined. The law is clear, the court held, that courts must look at the function being performed by the officer at the time of the conduct at issue, to apply the exception.

Community caretaking functions are “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Therefore, the court held, the appellant officer’s conduct was not protected by the community caretaking exception, as her conduct at issue was a “quintessential[ly] criminal investigation activity – the pursuit of a fleeing felon in the immediate aftermath of a robbery.”

Therefore, a reasonable officer should have known the community caretaking exception did nto excuse warrantless entry into Matalon’s home, and that the entry would infringe upon Matalon’s constitutional rights. So, the First Circuit concluded, qualified immunity did not protect the appellant officer from Matalon’s claim.

Read the full case: Matalon v. Hynnes, et al.

This case law update was written by James P. Garay Heelan, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: case law update, michael s causey


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