Tuesday, August 13, 2019
California Supreme Court:
Unanimous Court Rejects View Expressed in Lead Opinion 20 Years Ago That Warrantless Sweep May Be Justified in Absence of Exigent Circumstances
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A warrantless search of a home may no longer take place under the “community caretaking” doctrine, the California Supreme Court held yesterday, repudiating the lead opinion in a 1999 decision of that court and embracing the view of the lone dissenter, Justice Stanley Mosk.
Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for a unanimous court in rejecting the position taken in that case by then-Justice Janice Rogers Brown (later a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, now retired).
Brown said in People v. Ray that a warrantless search of a home was justified when police responded to a report of a door to the residence having been open all day with the contents in shambles, and that there was therefore no need to suppress as evidence the cocaine that was found on the premises. She wrote:
“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.’ ”
The lead opinion was signed by then-Justices Joyce Kennard and Marvin Baxter, now retired.
In a concurring opinion, then-Chief Justice Ronald George said exigent circumstances did exist. Justice Kathryn Werdegar joined in George’s opinion—she and George are now retired—as did Justice Ming Chin, who remains on the court.
Mosk, who died in 2001, said in his dissent:
“I firmly reject 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.’ Such an exception threatens to swallow the rule that absent a showing of true necessity, the constitutionally guaranteed right to security and privacy in one’s home must prevail. I strongly disagree with the assumption that the warrantless search of a residence, under nonexigent circumstances, can be justified on the paternalistic premise that ‘We’re from the government and we’re here to help you.’ ”
He went on to say:
“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.”
One week short of 20 years since Ray was decided, the Supreme Court yesterday disavowed the reasoning in the lead opinion. Corrigan recited that Brown’s opinion “recognized a nonemergency community caretaking exception permitting residential entry,” and declared:
“[W]e conclude no such exception exists and that the Ray lead opinion was wrong to create one….[T]he United States Supreme Court has articulated the concept of community caretaking, but only in the context of vehicle searches.”
The defendant in the present case, Willie Ovieda, pled guilty to manufacturing a controlled substance and possession of an assault weapon after his suppression motion was denied. Yesterday’s opinion reverses the Jan. 17, 2018 2-1 decision by Div. Six of this district’s Court of Appeal affirming the conviction and orders a remand to the Santa Barbara Superior Court with directions that the suppression motion be granted and that Ovieda be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.
No Exigent Circumstances
Corrigan said no emergency existed. Ovieda—who had threatened, in the presence of two friends who were in his residence, to commit suicide, twice grabbing a weapon with which to carry out the deed—had been taken outside by officers and placed in handcuffs.
“The officers cited concerns that unknown persons might be in the house, and that there may have been victims or loaded firearms inside,” she wrote. “While these concerns are obviously important, the People elicited no testimony to show the officers reasonably believed they were actually in play.”
Noting that only three justices signed the lead opinion in Ray, she said that “[n]either its holding nor its reasoning constitutes binding precedent.” Corrigan pointed out that no published decision since Ray—up until Court of Appeal Justice Kenneth Yegan’s majority opinion in Ovieda’s case—has applied the community caretaking doctrine outside the in a context not involving a vehicle.
The jurist set forth:
“The need to render emergency aid is a well-recognized part of the exigent circumstances exception. But it has always required that articulable facts support a reasonable belief that an emergency exists. The Ray lead opinion, having found no such facts were established, created a less demanding exception. It purported to permit a warrantless entry if some kind of police assistance might be rendered but the need was merely hypothetical.
“The Ray lead opinion’s diluted exception was not supported by our prior jurisprudence. The circumstances it describes as community caretaking do not involve nonemergency situations at all. Rather, it describes situations that could be emergencies but lack sufficient articulable facts to reasonably suggest an emergency exists.”
The case is People v. Ovieda, 2019 S.O.S. 3902
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