Wisconsin Supreme Court Grants Law Enforcement Broader Justifications For Warrantless Searches

from the hindsight-means-nothing,-says-state-body-that-can-ONLY-examine-things-in-hindsig dept

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has just made it easier for the state’s law enforcement officers to search residents’ houses without a warrant. A 4-3 decision overturned an appeals court opinion finding the opposite. In doing so, the Supreme Court expanded the reach of the state’s “community caretaker function” beyond simply allowing the retention of evidence discovered in “plain sight” to that found behind locked doors as well.

We conclude that the officers in this case reasonably exercised a bona fide community caretaker function when they searched Matalonis’s home. The officers therefore were not required to obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search in question, and the evidence of marijuana production they obtained should not be suppressed. Because the search was lawful under the community caretaker doctrine, we need not determine whether the search was also justified as a protective sweep.

The evidence of a marijuana grow operation was behind a locked door. Although Matalonis invited them into the house, he did not agree to a search of this locked room. Other paraphernalia in the house led officers to believe there might be illegal substances on the premises, but uncovered nothing else during the cursory search of the house to determine whether any more victims/perpetrators of the violent act that brought them there in the first place might be on the premises.

According to the majority opinion, the blood found on the locked door justified the warrantless search of the room. As it states, the search may not have been wholly justified in hindsight, but the court isn’t here to second-guess officers’ actions in circumstances such as these.

It is obvious to all, in hindsight, that Matalonis’s home did not in fact contain a “member of the public . . . in need of assistance.” But that is not the question before us today. Instead, we must decide whether, “under the circumstances as they existed at the time of the police conduct, [the officers were] engaged in a bona fide community caretaker function.” Therefore, we are concerned with the extent of the officers’ knowledge at the time they conducted the search, not after.

Hindsight is how the Fourth Amendment is served. If the court refuses to second-guess officers’ actions, then there’s no reason for it to preside over cases like this at all. It may as well dismiss motions to suppress or civil rights lawsuits out of hand if it’s not interested in applying hindsight. Courts are avenues of redress, something that only exists after the fact. With this rationale, the court limits itself to accepting whatever justification officers give for their actions and will apparently base other decisions on the subjective statements of law enforcement rather than the more objective stance the court is supposed to be taking.

As the dissent points out, the discoveries made during the caretaking sweep may have generated probable cause for a search, but probable cause is what officers are supposed to take to judges to obtain warrants — not to excuse warrantless searches after officers told Matalonis to unlock the door or they’d “kick it down.”

On the second floor, in plain view, a police officer did see marijuana and a variety of drug paraphernalia——pipes and other smoking utensils, a small silver grinder, and a ceramic water bong. The officer also encountered a locked door with a few droplets of blood scattered on the door. The officer smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming through the door and heard a fan running behind the door.

The date was January 15; the time was after 3:00 a.m. A reasonable person could infer that a fan is not normally operating at such a date and time merely for purposes of comfortable climate control.

In my view, the officer’s observations on the second floor, followed by Charles’s refusal to give consent to open the locked door, provided ample probable cause for a search warrant for the locked room to search for drugs. Conversely, the officers would have been hard pressed to make a case for a search warrant to find a body in some condition behind the door. Officers had already accounted for other known occupants of the house, including a basement tenant.

The majority decided not to discuss the other justification given for the warrantless search of the locked room: that it was a protective sweep. This works out better for Wisconsin law enforcement because the officers’ actions undercut their stated “need” to perform a protective sweep. Matalonis was questioned by officers and asked to sit in the living room until the sweep had been performed. But despite the allegations of violence, the presence of blood in many open areas of the house and Matalonis’ inconsistent statements on the night’s event and the number of people present in the house, officers never once placed him in cuffs or otherwise restrained him to ensure their safety.

At any point after the caretaking function had been concluded, officers could have taken Matalonis into custody and acquired a search warrant for the locked room. They had evidence an act of violence had occurred on the premises as well as the drug paraphernalia. But officers decided they had a right to search the room then and there. Instead of the suppression of evidence the appeals court recommended, Wisconsin citizens can now be subjected to bogus warrantless searches under the “community caretaking” function. As long as the function is justified, so apparently is any search of any area that can’t be immediately viewed during a sweep of a residence. What should have resulted in a search warrant instead presented itself as a threat to “kick a door down,” and the state’s Supreme Court says that sort of thing is perfectly OK.

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Comments on “Wisconsin Supreme Court Grants Law Enforcement Broader Justifications For Warrantless Searches”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Warrant requirement? Sounds like something a criminal would mention...

I’d like to say that this makes it abundantly clear, as if it wasn’t clear enough already, that unless police have a warrant you should never give them permission to search so much as a lunchbox, but with a court this cop friendly I’m pretty sure they’d allow any search, warrant or not, making granting or refusing permission a moot point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Warrant requirement? Sounds like something a criminal would mention...

Then all you can do is fire that gun the moment they kick in your down in the middle of the night and take at least 1 dirty cop with you.

When the police decide they are above the laws, then there is no law. Just heavily armed thugs intimidating and murdering anyone they decide to.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Warrant requirement? Sounds like something a criminal would mention...

So much stupidity…

1. I doubt you would take more than one cop with you
2. A state of emergency would result, bringing with it lockdown, increased surveillance, and martial law
3. You’ve pretty much guaranteed that gun control laws will be brought in to counter threats like this, they’ll just claim they are only disarming the terrorists.

The gun is not your guarantor of civilised governance, the enforcement of your constitutional rights via the democratic system is. So until you stop voting in the chumps who allow this kind of thing to go unchecked and unchallenged, the best you’re going to be able to do in terms of turning this situation around is to talk tough on TD as an anonymous coward.

Nothing will change until a quorum of people want it to and pressure does work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: 4-3

contempt of cop.

Only terrorists and criminals defy a cop when he tells to do something. A true citizen trusts the police completely and takes their word on what the laws are, not some silly book about constitutional rights. The founding fathers were terrorists and the police know that all who follow their ideals cannot be trusted.

A. Lauridsen says:

Not that open and shut

Admittedly I’m not a US citizen and might be influenced by that.

I had to read far far down into the body of the text to reach the same conclusion as the op.

I do not see why the court needs to use hind sight. To me, the question is: Did the officers act correctly with the information they had at that time. Is there some US legal tradition which states otherwise?

Given that it was only a few drops of blood, and that the officers pointed to the fan and the smell of marijuana as their cause I agree with the op.

If however there had been more than a few drops of blood, then the police – in my view – would have been obligated to search the room, by whatever means necessary. With or without sounds and smells.

Personally, I think the article should be edited, and the most relevant facts should be mentioned first.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not that open and shut

They needed a warrant in order to force the citizen to open that door if he refused to after they demanded he open it.

Breaking down that door without a warrant would make the evidence inadmissable in court.

Constitutional right of search and seizure regulated

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Basically you cannot do a spur of the moment search if the owner says no. As that is illegal, but the police don’t follow the laws these days.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Not that open and shut

Basically you cannot do a spur of the moment search if the owner says no.

Unless you think someone is literally bleeding to death inside that door. Then you certainly can.

In this case, the police actually followed a blood trail to the house, there was blood on the locked door, and the police had been told by a victim that multiple people were involved, yet the guy claimed he lived alone. So it’s not like there was no reason to believe someone could be in there. But they also wasted lots of time before finally opening that door. If they really thought someone was bleeding to death – and was unconscious or disabled to the point that they couldn’t call for help – they SHOULD have kicked it down, because waiting a half hour probably means that person is dead anyway. But if they’re going to waste a half hour, they may as well use that time to GET a warrant.

Anonymous Coward says:

Any excuse to allow police to break the law

When the law doesnt fit their need, they just adjust it with their crooked friends in the court.

How long do these crooked police officers think they will continue to get away with this kind of garbage?

Even people like myself who has never been arrested for anything are starting to see police as the enemy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Reasonable people

“A reasonable person could infer that a fan is not normally operating at such a date and time merely for purposes of comfortable climate control.”

Some reasonable people might infer that a fan might normally be operating at such a date and time merely for someone who sleeps better with a cheap approximation of a white noise machine running all night.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Reasonable people

White noise… or the ceiling fan to circulate the warm air down off the peak of a tall room so the room is even in temperature… or the fan from a space heater… I can go on and on for reasons that a fan noise is heard in the winter.

Saying, “it’s not normal to do A because I don’t do A in month B” is just post action rationalization. Dudes should have gotten a warrant plain and simple.

Whatever (profile) says:

“But despite the allegations of violence, the presence of blood in many open areas of the house and Matalonis’ inconsistent statements on the night’s event and the number of people present in the house, officers never once placed him in cuffs or otherwise restrained him to ensure their safety. “

This is not particularly relevant here. That he was cuffed or not cuffed does not negate the need to secure the premises and assure that there are no injured people or dead bodies inside.

Here’s the rub: if the police officers had walked away from the locked door with blood on it, and it turned out there was one or more injured or dying people behind that door, we would be reading posts about sloppy police work and failing to notice obvious things. There was certainly enough in the game to merit a warrant (smell and the fan running), but the blood on the door pretty much makes it easy for the police to justify wanting to get past the locked door quickly to assure that there is nobody behind the door who is injured or more.

20/20 hindsight is not a good way to judge “in the moment” police actions. Moreover, in a case like this where a warrant would have been a slam dunk, it’s an almost meaningless argument.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re:

Oh ya, Obama appoints someone, the constitution is completely out the window to all the left leaning agenda’s That includes this. It’ll be 5-4 Democrats Favor always. Ban Guns, Pro Choice even at 9 months as it’s not a Baby until it’s born, even then questionable. No warrants needed to search anyone’s house. Free Speech? Only speech they agree with!!! I can go on and on.

Anonymous Coward says:

sorry but no

While I normally agree with you on 4th amendment issues this is not one of them. Blood on a locked door is the very reason the care giver exception was written. If a person had been locked behind there, and the police did nothing that person would likely be dead.

The man had no plausible reason for that kind of blood splatter on a locked door.

It would be one thing for a person to have gone hunting, and having a carcass out after skinning, and cleaning it. The guy didn’t have a reason like this.

Zgaidin (profile) says:

Re: sorry but no

I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with your assessment. Neither the imminent threat rules or the care taker exception apply here. Was there blood? Yes. Was there enough blood to suggest someone’s life was in immediate danger? No. Was there any other indication that someone was in immediate danger? No. If a violent attack on someone which produced blood and was severe enough to be reasonably concerned for that person’s safety, then there would be a lot more blood than a few drops here and there. The officers didn’t hear anyone in there shouting for help. By their own testimony, they didn’t hear anything that would suggest that someone was in there. So, either no one was in there, or there was a corpse in there from a very weird murder. In either case, they had ample opportunity to detain the defendant and obtain a warrant for the search.

What this was really about was that the cops smelled pot in the locked room. Coupled with the bong, pipes, and immediately visible pot, they absolutely had ample probable cause to obtain a warrant, but then they have to detain the suspect, drive him back to the precinct or lock-up, fill out the extra paperwork that goes along with both a search warrant request and detaining a suspect, wait for the warrant, and then go back to the house to conduct the search. So they cited the tiny amounts of blood as reason to apply the care giver exception and conduct a search without a warrant. See how much time that saved them? Their shift was probably over in about 3 hours. They could probably get a warrant in that time, but probably not with enough time left to conduct the search themselves. Someone on the day shift would have conducted the search and gotten credit for a major drug bust. Between the 4th amendment and the combination of their time and hassle, the answer was easy.

Justin says:

A victim of the "community caretaker authority"

Just 2 months ago I was a victim of the community caretaker bullshit and had my 4th amendment raped without a curtesy spit. I had 2 men breaking into my garage so I grabbed my pistol ran outside and shot in the air 2 times. Needless to say they ran and will think twice about trying to loot me ever again but I had 4 beers before hand so it was a bad decision I admit that. I ended up getting arrested and wouldn’t give a statement which really got under the Det skin. While in custody the Det and 2 uniforms proceeded back to my house stating my door was open which was a flat out lie and proceeded to enter my home (which I live alone at) to perform a community caretaker sweep to make sure no one was injured inside my house. Right in the police report it states that they got a hold of dispatch to see if there were any other phone #’s linked to my address with negative results and they knew that I lived alone. While supposedly doing just a protective sweep they went through drawers and cabinets and found some weed and a pipe which I also got charged with. I doubt a dead body or injured person is gonna be in my silverware drawer??? Funny thing about it is they called my girlfriend who had a key and threatened her to come let them in or they were going to kick my door in and break all my stuff in my house. When she got there the door was locked lol how the hell did they lock my deadbolt unless they took my keys which they had confiscated a half hr earlier? But remember my door was wide open. Cops are shady as it is and this community caretaker authority gives them way to much power to do illegal search and seizures whenever they want. They are going to abuse this power and not even worry about attaining warrant’s until we the people come together and stand up for our amendments. West Allis, WI police Dept can lick my browneye!

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