PA Supreme Court: Once Emergency Ends, Police Must Leave Private Residence or Get a Warrant

 Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Wilmer, holding that if the police enter a residence to respond to an emergency, once the emergency ends, the police are no longer permitted to remain in one’s house absent a warrant or the existence of some other exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Commonwealth v. Wilmer

On October 27, 2013, while on foot patrol in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State Troopers observed a number of people on the roof of a sorority house. One of these people appeared to be visibly intoxicated and unsteadily stumbling around on the roof. The troopers feared that this individual would fall off of the roof and injure himself, and so they approached the sorority and requested permission to enter. However, their request was denied. One of the troopers then attempted to kick the door open, but the kick failed. The people inside laughed at the trooper’s inability to kick the door open.

The same trooper then kicked through a window that was next to the door and then reached in and unlocked the door. While inside, the troopers called EMS and campus police to the scene. Unfortunately, the troopers’ efforts were for naught, and the individual they were attempting to save fell off of the roof. The troopers then began to leave the house. As the troopers exited the house, one of the troopers saw a bag of marijuana and a marijuana grinder on a coffee table, which he seized and took to his patrol vehicle. No one present at the sorority house claimed ownership of either the marijuana or the grinder.  

This same trooper then re-entered the sorority house without a warrant. He claimed that his purpose for re-entering the house was to get information about the broken window and an air conditioning unit that was damaged by the troopers during this incident. The trooper knocked on a closed bedroom door. The trooper then spoke to the occupants of the room, which contained the defendant. The defendant raised her hand when the trooper asked if any of the occupants of the room lived in the house. The trooper then observed a glass marijuana bong and a pipe sitting in plain view next to her. The defendant admitted that the items belonged to her, and she was subsequently charged with one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.

The Motion to Suppress

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence, challenging the legality of the troopers’ initial entry and their subsequent re-entry into the home after the man fell off fo the roof. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The judge ruled that there were exigent circumstances that justified the entry, i.e. the intoxicated individual standing on the roof, and that the trooper’s re-entry “was justified by the exigent circumstances that gave rise to the original entry.” The defendant was found guilty and ordered to pay court costs and a $50 fine.

The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court held that the initial entry was lawful given that the troopers were attempting to aid someone in danger. In regards to the one trooper’s re-entry, the Superior Court held that “when police are properly authorized to enter a dwelling under the exigent circumstances doctrine, they are also authorized to return to complete the necessary paperwork required by the emergency situation that allowed them to enter the building in the first place.” The defendant then filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Court accepted the case.

What is the Community Caretaking Exception to the Fourth Amendment?

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, 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.
— The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Under the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable subject only to specified exceptions. Over the years, the Supreme Court has created a number of specific exceptions that allow the police to search and seize one’s property without a warrant. One of these exceptions is the community caretaking exception. There are three exceptions that embody the “community caretaking exception.” These include: the public servant exception, the automotive impound/inventory exception, and the emergency aid exception. The emergency aid exception was the exception at issue in this case.

The emergency aid exception allows the police to enter one’s property or conduct some warrantless search to assist a person that the officer reasonably believes is in jeopardy. It is important to remember that just because an officer’s initial intrusion may be justified under the emergency aid exception, or for that matter any exception, it does not follow that the police are given unlimited and unfettered access to the property.

In Mincey v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court held that numerous state and federal cases have recognized that the Fourth Amendment does not bar police officers from making warrantless entries and searches when they reasonably believe that a person within is in need of immediate aid. However, the Court noted, that the “warrantless search must be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.” Other legal scholars have addressed this issue. Professor Wayne LaFave addressed this issue in his treatise on search and seizure law. He wrote that a police officer may do no more than is reasonably necessary to ascertain whether someone is in need of assistance to provide that assistance. Further, he wrote, that once it is determined that the suspicion which led to the entry is without substance, the officers must depart rather than explore the premises further.  

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the troopers’ re-entry was not justified under the emergency aid exception. The Court opined that the troopers’ initial entry into the residence was permissible to assist the visibly intoxicated young man stumbling around on the roof. However, once he fell, the troopers’ authority for a warrantless entry in the house ceased, and thus the troopers were required to leave the premises immediately. Further, the Court expressly rejected the Superior Court’s reasoning that the troopers’ re-entry into the home to obtain information to complete police paperwork was part of “one continuous episode” which permitted the re-entry without a warrant. Consequently, because the trooper did not observe the glass marijuana bong and the pipe in the house from a lawful vantage point, the suppression court erred in denying the defendant’s motion. The Court vacated the defendant’s sentence, and she will receive a new trial.

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 Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

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