Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq.
In People v. Ovieda, the California Supreme Court held that the community caretaking exception does not apply in the absence of exigency. In reaching its conclusion, the Court disapproved of its previous decision in People v. Ray.
In June 2015, five Santa Barbara police officers, responding to a report by family members of Willie Ovieda reported that Ovieda was suicidal and had access to a gun, arrived outside of Ovieda’s Santa Barbara home. They learned Ovieda was inside with two friends, Trevor Case and his wife, Amber Woellert. Ovieda’s family was not at the scene and his roommate was out of town. Officers were able to contact Case, who came out to speak with them. He said that Ovieda had threatened to commit suicide, had attempted suicide before, and had tried to grab several firearms in his bedroom. Case and Woellert had physically restrained Ovieda to keep him from killing himself. While Woellert restrained Ovieda, Case collected a handgun, two rifles, and ammunition and removed them to the garage. Case was very emotional and so concerned about Ovieda that he had alerted Ovieda’s family members, prompting their call to police.
After talking with the officers, Case called Woellert inside the home, and she came out with Ovieda. Officers searched and handcuffed Ovieda. Ovieda denied having made suicidal comments or that he had any firearms. The officers were told that Ovieda’s roommate was in Washington State. On cross-examination, Officer Corbett acknowledged that Case had said the guns had been taken away from Ovieda and that only Case, Woellert, and Ovieda had been in the house. Case never said that any domestic violence was involved or that anyone else was inside. Corbett had no information that there were any other people in the home. Officer Garcia conceded on cross-examination that officers had no “specific information that led [them] to believe somebody else was inside.”
Nevertheless, Officer Corbett testified that because the situation was “emotional and dynamic,” and the officers were “unsure if all parties were accounted for” and were unclear what had caused the situation, the officers “felt duty bound to secure the premises and make sure there were no people inside that were injured or in need of assistance.” Collectively, the officers decided to enter the home and conduct a protective sweep. The officers never obtained a search warrant during the subsequent entry, sweep and searches.
After entry during the officers’ sweep of the house, the officers detected a strong smell of marijuana and observed ammunition and items relating to marijuana cultivation. More officers were called to the scene. Ultimately, large quantities of guns, ammunition, and drug-producing equipment were removed from the house and garage. The recovered weaponry included a submachine gun and a rifle with a long-range scope. No search warrant was ever obtained.
Ovieda was charged with manufacturing a controlled substance, importing an assault weapon, and possessing a silencer and short-barreled rifle. Ovieda moved to suppress the evidence found in his home. At the suppression hearing, neither Officer Corbett nor Officer Garcia testified that they had asked Ovieda’s consent to enter or that they questioned the veracity of Case and Woellert. They mentioned no noise or movement in the house or garage indicating that others might be inside or that anything was wrong inside. They were not asked what, if anything, they intended to do with Ovieda or whether he would have been allowed to return to the residence. They did not rely on that possibility to justify the need for the protective sweep.
The trial court denied the motion, finding that the community caretaker exception to the exclusion rule applied. After pleading guilty to the manufacturing count and to possession of an assault weapon, Ovieda was placed on probation. Ovieda appealed his conviction, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the officers searched his residence. A divided Court of Appeal upheld the search under the community caretaking exception.
The California Supreme Court first conveyed the relevant legal framework encompassing the issues on appeal. Both the federal and state Constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. (U.S. Const., 4th Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, section 13.) “In California, issues relating to the suppression of evidence derived from governmental searches and seizures are reviewed under federal constitutional standards.” (People v. Troyer (2011) 51 Cal.4th 599, 605.) “‘[T]he ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” (Riley v. California (2014) 573 U.S. 373, 381; People v. Macabeo (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1206, 1213.) “[T]he ‘physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.’” (Payton v. New York (1980) 445 U.S. 573, 585; see People v. Schmitz (2012) 55 Cal.4th 909, 919.) “[I]t is a cardinal principle that ‘searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.’” (Mincey v. Arizona (1978) 437 U.S. 385, 390; see Riley, at p. 382.)
“‘A long-recognized exception to the warrant requirement exists when ‘exigent circumstances’ make necessary the conduct of a warrantless search.’” (People v. Panah (2005) 35 Cal.4th 395, 465.) The term “exigent circumstances” describes “‘an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.’” (Ibid.) The high court has recognized that exigent circumstances may exist where there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed but “an emergency leaves police insufficient time to seek a warrant.” (Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016) 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2173.) It has also found exigency when an entry or search appears reasonably necessary to render emergency aid, whether or not a crime might be involved. “We do not question the right of the police to respond to emergency situations. 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. … ‘The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.’ [Citation.] And the police may seize any evidence that is in plain view during the course of their legitimate emergency activities.” (Mincey, supra, 437 U.S. at pp. 392–393, fns. omitted.) “Accordingly, law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” (Brigham City v. Stuart (2006) 547 U.S. 398, 403.)
Thus, the exigent circumstances exception applies to situations requiring prompt police action. These situations may arise when officers are responding to or investigating criminal activity and when there is a need for emergency aid, even if unrelated to criminal conduct. Examples of exigent circumstances in prior cases include “‘hot pursuit’” of a fleeing suspect (United States v. Santana (1976) 427 U.S. 38, 42–43); preventing the imminent destruction of evidence (see Kentucky v. King (2011) 563 U.S. 452, 460); intervening in a physical altercation or crime in progress, or providing emergency help (see Brigham City, supra, 547 U.S. at pp. 406–407; see also Michigan v. Fisher (2009) 558 U.S. 45, 48–49). Lower federal courts have also recognized that a warrantless entry in response to an actively suicidal person may be justified to prevent injury. “[T]he threat an individual poses to himself may create an exigency that makes the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless entry is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” (Rice v. ReliaStar Life Ins. Co. (5th Cir. 2014) 770 F.3d 1122, 1131; see also Fitzgerald v. Santoro (7th Cir. 2013) 707 F.3d 725, 732; Roberts v. Spielman (11th Cir. 2011) 643 F.3d 899, 905–906; Hancock v. Dodson (6th Cir. 1992) 958 F.2d 1367, 1375–1376.)
The California Supreme Court explained that, if the Santa Barbara police officers here were lawfully inside Ovieda’s home, they could lawfully seize contraband in plain sight. (See Coolidge v. New Hampshire (1971) 403 U.S. 443, 464–465.) They could also rely on what they had seen to secure a warrant to conduct a more extensive search. (See Michigan v. Clifford (1984) 464 U.S. 287, 294.) But was the initial entry of the officers lawful? The Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness inquiry was critical to answering this question.
The Court explained that “‘[a]s a general rule, the reasonableness of an officer’s conduct is dependent upon the existence of facts available to him at the moment of the search or seizure which would warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate. [Citation.] And in determining whether the officer acted reasonably, due weight must be given not to his unparticularized suspicions or “hunches,” but to the reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in the light of his experience; in other words, he must be able to point to specific and articulable facts from which he concluded that his action was necessary.’” (People v. Duncan (1986) 42 Cal.3d 91, 97–98.)
Here, the Court found no such facts describing exigent circumstances. The officers heard from Case that Case and Woellert had disarmed Ovieda, and that Case, Woellert, and Ovieda were the only people who were in the home. All three were outside, and Ovieda was handcuffed and under control before police even entered the home. There was no suspicious noise from inside, no suspicious behavior from the three, and no suggestion that firearms were accessible to others or posed a threat to the officers or the public. The Court found no testimony to show that the officers reasonably believed anyone else was in the house, nor that there were any loaded firearms inside. Thus, the California Supreme Court concluded no exigency existed on the facts presented.
Even in the absence of exigency, however, both the trial court and the Court of Appeal majority concluded the warrantless entry here was justified under the so-called “community caretaking” exception. In its 1999 decision in People v. Ray, the lead opinion of the California Supreme Court had recognized a “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement for government entry into a private residence.
In Ray, someone reported to police that a neighbor’s front door “‘has been open all day and it’s all a shambles inside.’” Officers responded, confirmed the front door was open, and observed from the outside that the front room appeared to be ransacked as if someone went through it. They knocked and announced their presence but there was no reply. The officers then entered, they said, to conduct a security check “to see if anyone inside might be injured, disabled, or unable to obtain help.” The house was empty, but officers found drugs and cash in plain view. They left and obtained a search warrant.
The Ray lead opinion, which garnered three votes, drew a distinction between exigent circumstances and community caretaking. The lead opinion asserted that the community caretaking exception arises in two situations: entry to render emergency aid and entry to preserve life or property. When relying on the need to render emergency aid, a showing of specific, articulable facts indicating the need for swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property.
However, the Ray lead opinion held that a different facet of community caretaking, requiring a less stringent showing, could justify the officers’ entry, declaring: “Under the community caretaking exception, circumstances short of a perceived emergency may justify a warrantless entry, including the protection of property, as ‘where the police reasonably believe that the premises have recently been or are being burglarized.’” (Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 473 (lead opn. of Brown, J.), italics added.) According to the lead opinion, under the less demanding aspect of the community caretaking exception, the question is: “Given the known facts, would a prudent and reasonable officer have perceived a need to act in the proper discharge of his or her community caretaking functions?” The lead opinion concluded that the officers’ entry was justified because “[w]hile the facts known to the officers may not have established exigent circumstances or the apparent need to render emergency aid, they warranted further inquiry to resolve the possibility someone inside required assistance or property needed protection. In such circumstances, ‘entering the premises was the only practical means of determining whether there was anyone inside in need of assistance [or property in need of protection].’” (Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 478 (lead opn. of Brown, J.).)
Three judges who concurred in the result did not rely on the lead’s rationale, but instead found exigent circumstances to support their view, and the lone dissent “firmly reject[ed] the suggestion that we should create a broad new exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless searches, permitting police officers to enter a residence, even when there is no immediate threat to its occupants, merely as part of their ‘community caretaking functions.’… To the extent that the officers believed they were called upon to perform a community caretaking function, it would have sufficed to shut the door.”
The Supreme Court explained that the Ray lead opinion’s suggestion that an entry was justified to explore the possibility that someone inside needed immediate aid or that a crime was ongoing diluted the appropriate standard for exigency. The Court explained that although police do not “need ‘ironclad proof of “a likely serious, life-threatening” injury to invoke the emergency aid exception,’” officers must possess “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant was seriously injured or threatened with such injury.”
Here, the Court concluded that the objective facts that elevate speculation to reasonable suspicion were not present or were not articulated at Ovieda’s suppression hearing for the Santa Barbara police officers to enter Ovieda’s home. The Court added that if the officers reasonably believed that Ovieda was a danger to himself or others due to a mental disorder, they could have temporarily taken him into custody for a mental health evaluation. If they had done so, the officers could have then obtained a warrant for the seizure of Ovieda’s firearms.
The California Supreme Court also noted that the United States Supreme Court had never applied the concept of a community caretaking search outside the context of an automobile inventory. Although Cady v. Dombrowski (1973) 413 U.S. 433 applied a community caretaking exception in holding a warrantless search of an automobile reasonable, the Court explained that Cady and its progeny did not create a generalized exception to the warrant requirement for nonemergency community caretaking functions, much less apply such an exception to the search of homes. Cady and the other cases all involved searches of vehicles in police custody. The caretaking function entailed only the securing of items in those vehicles. Cady did not suggest that a community caretaking rationale alone could justify the search of homes, “where privacy expectations are most heightened.” (California v. Ciraolo (1986) 476 U.S. 207, 213.)
The Court explained that a warrantless search must be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation. (Mincey, supra, 437 U.S. at p. 393.) The California Supreme Court explained that United States Supreme Court precedent had established that, while an emergency might initially justify a warrantless entry or search, “once that exigency has abated and the premises vacated, a subsequent warrantless entry or search is not justified.” Here, as discussed, the California Supreme Court had determined no exigency existed at the time to justify the officers’ initial entry into Ovieda’s home.
The Court thus held that the community caretaking exception asserted in the absence of exigency is not one of the carefully delineated exceptions to the residential warrant requirement recognized by the United StatesSupreme Court. The California Supreme Court disapproved the lead opinion in Ray to the extent that it conflicted with the decision here. Accordingly, the California Supreme Court reversed, and remanded with directions that the case be returned to the trial court to permit Ovieda to withdraw his guilty plea and the court enter an order granting his suppression motion.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
This case makes clear that there is no community caretaking exception in the absence of exigency as analyzed under the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard. As we noted in discussion of the appellate court’s decision in Client Alert No. 33 Vol. 2, “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.” The California Supreme Court’s reversal here only emphasizes the need to heed this advice – with the full understanding that a non-exigent situation will not support invocation of the community caretaking exception following the Supreme Court’s decision here in Ovieda under state law. However, to the extent that a SCOTUS opinion may subsequently conflict with Ovieda on this issue, the SCOTUS opinion would control.
As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact James R. Touchstone at (714) 446–1400 or via email at email@example.com.
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 People v. Ovieda, 2019 Cal. LEXIS 5947 (Aug. 12, 2019).
 21 Cal.4th 464 (1999).
 Troyer, supra, 51 Cal.4th at p. 602.
 Troyer, supra, 51 Cal.4th at p. 607.