COMMUNITY CARETAKER EXCEPTION APPLIES TO SEARCH OF RESIDENCE OF REPORTEDLY SUICIDAL MAN

Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq.

People v. Ovieda, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 34 (2nd Dist. Jan. 17, 2018)

Facts

In June 2015, the sister of plaintiff Ovieda told a 911 operator that Ovieda threatened to kill himself and had attempted suicide before. Santa Barbara Police Officer Mark Corbett responded to the 911 call.  Another officer phoned Ovieda’s friend, Trevor Case, inside the house.  Case went outside and reported that Ovieda had threatened to commit suicide and tried to grab several firearms in his bedroom.  Case and his wife had physically restrained Ovieda to keep him from killing himself.  While Case’s wife restrained Ovieda, Case searched for additional firearms in the bedroom.  Case found a handgun, two rifles, and ammunition and moved them to the garage. Case was unsure whether Ovieda had additional weapons in the house.

Ovieda agreed to come outside, was detained, and falsely denied having made suicidal comments or that he had any firearms.  Ovieda said he was depressed because a friend committed suicide the week before.  Officer Corbett described the situation as “emotional and dynamic.”  He believed a cursory search was necessary because it was unknown how many more weapons were in the house, whether the weapons were secure, and whether anyone inside the house was injured or needed medical attention.  It was a concern because the person who made the 911 call, Ovieda’s sister, was not at the scene and the officers did not know anything for sure.  A second officer agreed a safety sweep was necessary to confirm that: (1) there were no other people in the house; (2) nobody else was hurt; and (3) there were no dangerous weapons or firearms left out in the open.

During the officers’ cursory sweep, they saw multiple firearms, ammunition, high-capacity magazines for an assault weapon, marijuana, concentrated cannabis, and drug cultivation equipment.  Officer Corbett believed that two of the rifles the officers saw were illegal assault weapons.  Based on 15 years in narcotics-related investigations, Corbett believed that the marijuana lab posed an immediate risk of fire or explosion.

Ovieda brought a motion to suppress the drug manufacturing and assault weapon evidence.  The trial court denied the motion, finding that the community caretaker exception to the exclusion rule applied. Ovieda was convicted by plea to manufacturing concentrated cannabis[1] and possession of an assault weapon.[2]  Ovieda appealed his conviction, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the officers searched his residence.

Held

The California Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the officers acted reasonably when they entered the house to perform the cursory search after Ovieda came outside.

The Court observed that in People v. Ray,[3] the California Supreme Court stated that the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment permitted police to make a warrantless search of a home if the search was unrelated to the criminal investigation duties of the police.  The Supreme Court found that, under this exception, circumstances “short of a perceived emergency” could justify a warrantless entry to preserve life or protect property.  In such circumstances, officers were expected to help those in physical harm, assist people unable to take care of themselves, resolve conflicts, or provide other services on an emergency basis.

Applying Ray to the present case, the Court of Appeal noted that Officer Corbett responded to a 911 call made by a concerned family member to help a suicidal person. Ovieda’s friend reported that Ovieda had to be physically restrained from killing himself and that he removed firearms himself from Ovieda’s bedroom to the garage.  Officers were told Ovieda had previously attempted suicide, yet were unsure of whether additional firearms were inside the residence.  Ovieda’s sister who made the call was not visibly present at the scene, leading officers to consider her safety or that of other possible persons in the house. Citing People v. Roberts,[4] the Court noted that “[w]hen it comes to choosing between the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless searches and the preservation of life, the preservation of life controls.” Considering these circumstances, the Court found that the officers’ cursory search had nothing to do with any criminal investigation, and rather constituted a pure community caretaking function.  The Court of Appeal concluded that the entry and cursory search did not violate Ovieda’s Fourth Amendment rights.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The Court of Appeal concluded that a warrantless search of a residence is permissible under the community caretaking function when it is conducted to preserve life or protect property and unrelated to criminal investigative duties.  As the Court noted, in such circumstances, officers are expected to help those in physical harm, assist people unable to take care of themselves, resolve conflicts, or provide other services on an emergency basis.  In using this rationale to find the officers’ search of the house in this instance was permissible, the Court expressed that the officers based their decision to search on the need to confirm that:  (1) there were no other people in the house; (2) nobody else was hurt; and (3) there were no dangerous weapons or firearms left out in the open.  The Court found these reasons were acceptable under the community caretaking function.

The Court also determined that evidence of a crime, observed in plain view during the search, was admissible to support a criminal conviction.  It is important for an officer relying upon the community caretaking function to search a home without a warrant, be able to clearly articulate, both in the crime report and later by way of testimony, his or her basis for entry and search under that doctrine in order to ensure that any evidence ultimately discovered is admissible in a subsequent criminal prosecution.  Moreover, it is also necessary to clearly articulate the facts supporting application of the doctrine in order to avoid civil liability for an improper search of a person’s residence.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship

[1] Health & Saf. Code, section 11379.6(a).

[2] Pen. Code, section 30605(a).

[3] 21 Cal.4th 464 (1999).

[4] 47 Cal.2d 374 (1956).





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