Community Caretaking Exception Overrides Homeowner’s Objection to Search
Law enforcement entry into a home, over the homeowner’s objection, was justified because officers reasonably believed a person inside was potentially unable to communicate and held against her will or otherwise in danger, the Eighth Circuit held.
On April 26, 2013, half-way house resident Jennifer Sarloos telephoned the Sioux Falls Police Department and reported that she was concerned another resident, Alexis Wallace, was being held against her will by her ex-boyfriend, Cody Michael Smith, who she believed was armed. Three officers responded to Smith’s home, including one officer who had been recently dispatched to the same location in response to a report that a male suspect was discharging firearms outside the home.
Smith answered the door when officers knocked. He told them Wallace was not at the home and he refused consent to the police to search for Wallace in his home. The officers returned to their patrol car and radioed to dispatch to look for Wallace at the local jail, hospitals, detox facilities, and similar locations. Dispatch subsequently reported the Wallace was not at any of those locations. Dispatch also informed the officers that Smith had outstanding, unrelated warrants for his arrest.
One officer telephoned Saarloos who said that Smith had been overheard yelling at Wallace on the phone that day, that Wallace had gone to Smith’s home to retrieve some personal belongings, and that despite attempts to contact her, and that Wallace had not been heard from since she left the half-way house earlier that day.
Soon thereafter, Smith emerged from his home to take out trash and officers arrested him. Smith again stated officers could not enter his home without a warrant. An officer then noticed someone look out the back window of Smith’s home.
Officers then approached the front door, announced their presence, and entered Smith’s residence. They called out for Wallace, who responded around thirty seconds later indicating she was in the bedroom. When officers located Wallace, she was not restrained and told officers that Smith was the only thing preventing her from leaving the home.
In the bedroom with Wallace, officers observed and seized an AK-47 that was partially covered by a bedsheet. Smith was subsequently indicted on a weapons charge. He subsequently lost a motion to suppress the gun evidence and conditionally pled guilty to possession of a firearm by a prohibited person in violation of federal law.
On appeal to the Eighth Circuit, Smith argued his motion to suppress should have been granted because the AK-47 was uncovered during a warrantless search. The government asserted the search was lawful under community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment as a defense, which is “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute,” which the Eighth Circuit had recognized “may justify noninvestigatory searches and seizures in certain limited situations.”
The community caretaker exception applies allows a law enforcement officer to enter a residence without a warrant where the officer has a reasonable belief that an emergency exists requiring his or her attention. The Eighth Circuit thus began its analysis determining that, in light of the specific information available to officers at the time they entered Smith’s home, they had a reasonable belief that their entry was a justifiable exercise of their community caretaking function.
The court then weighed then weighed the government’s interests in the officers’ entry against Smith’s right to be free from government intrusion. Smith argued the emergency situation the officers may have believe existed was extinguished upon his arrest. The appellate court disagreed, reasoning that the justification for the officers’ entry arose from their obligation to help those in danger and to ensure the safety of the public and that Wallace could have been incapacitated within the residence and unable to emerge following Smith’s arrest.
Further, the court reasoned, the scope of the encounter was reasonably tailored, as officers limited their entry into Smith’s home to locating Wallace. That they observed a firearm in the room where Wallace was located allowed officers to seize the weapon, as it was in plain view.
Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Smith’s motion to suppress.
Read the full case: United States v. Cody Michael Smith
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