Fourth Amendment Rights, the “Emergency Aid” Doctrine, and Violations of Privacy by Police

The Fourth Amendment: Warrant Required Unless Lawfully Recognized Exception

The Fourth Amendment dictates that warrantless searches inside a home without warrant “are presumptively unreasonable.” Payton v. New York (1980) 445 U.S. 573, 586. In order to justify a warrantless search, the government’s interest in conducting the search must be rise to a level greater than individual’s privacy interest at stake. (Delaware v. Prouse (1979) 440 U.S. 648, 665.) “An intrusion by the state into the privacy of the home for any purpose is one of the most awesome incursions of police power into the lives of the individual.”People v. Ramey (1976) 16 Cal.3d 263, 275.  The warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions. People v. Werner (2012) 207 Cal. App. 4th 1195, 1205. Search warrants based on probable cause, issued by a neutral and detached magistrate, “are generally required to search a person’s home or his person unless `the exigencies of the situation’ make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Mincey v. Arizona (1978) 437 U. S. 385, 393-394.

The Emergency Aid Exception to the Police Need for a Warrant

One notable exception to the warrant requirement as it pertains to warrantless searches of homes have been demonstrated in circumstances when there are  facts which would lead a reasonable officer to believe there is a need to enter the home in order to “preserve life or avoid serious injury.” Mincey, supra, 437 U.S. at 392. The officer’s subjective reasons for entering the home are irrelevant; the question is whether an objectively reasonable officer would believe there is an exigency to search. Scott v. United States (1978) 436 U.S. 128, 138.

Under the emergency aid exigency exception to the warrant requirement, officers may only enter a dwelling without consent or warrant in order 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, and there must be an objectively reasonable basis for believe medical assistance is needed or a person is in danger. Michigan v. Fisher (2009) 558 U.S. 45, 49. “However, the seriousness of the offense does not, by itself, give rise to an exigent circumstance. Even a homicide does not warrant a blanket exception to the Fourth Amendment on that basis.” People v. Ormonde (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 282, citing Mincey, supra, 437 U.S. at 394-395 [“We decline to hold that the seriousness of the offense under investigation itself creates exigent circumstances of the kind that under the Fourth Amendment justify a warrantless search”].) “In the absence of true necessity- that is, an imminent and substantial threat to life, health or property” the individual’s right to privacy must prevail over any government interest. (People v. Smith (1972) 7 Cal.3d 282, 286).

In Brigham City v. Stuart, supra, 547 U.S. 398, the United States Supreme Court considered whether the entry into a residence without a warrant to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury is an exigent circumstance excusing compliance with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. In the Stuart matter, the police approached the back door of the home and heard evidence of a fracas going on inside the residence. Id. at 406. They saw a youth being restrained by four adults, with the teenager breaking loose and striking one of the adults, causing the adult to spit blood into a sink. Id. “In these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone `unconscious’ or `semi-conscious’ or worse before entering.” (Id.; see Michigan v. Fisher (2009) 558 U.S. 45, 48-49.)

The California Supreme Court has adopted the objective reasonableness standard in exigent circumstances analysis where officers face critical safety concerns at a residence in People v. Troyer (2011) 51 Cal.4th 599. In Troyer, police responded to a reported shooting at a home shortly after noon. Id. at 603. When they arrived, present on the front porch was a female, who had been shot several times, and a male, who was assisting her. Id. A second male was bleeding from a head wound and had blood on his face and shirt. Id. The woman had no ability to explain the situation and the bleeding male was not always coherent. While he did tell police no one was inside the residence, his demeanor and injury caused the officers to believe he was not candid. Id. at 603-604. They felt the need to enter to determine if others needed assistance. Id. In walking through the interior of the home, they came to a locked bedroom and forced entry after no one answered the officers’ knock. Inside the bedroom, the police found marijuana. Id. at 604.

The Court in Troyer applied the “emergency aid exception” to the requirement of a warrant. Troyer, supra, 51 Cal.4th at 605. “[T]he exception `requires only “an objectively reasonable basis for believing . . .” that “a person within [the residence] is in need of immediate aid’.” Troyer, supra, 51 Cal.4th at 605-606. In light of what the officers saw at the front porch, along with the initial report of individuals shooting at each other, the court determined entry and inspection of the rooms inside the home was objectively reasonable, and the discovery of drugs was sustained. Id. at 612.

Pushing the Limits – Basic Noise Complaints framed by Police as Way to Enter to Allow “Emergency Aid”

In a recent Napa case where we challenged police entry into a home, with no warrant, in the middle of the night, with guns drawn, the police relied on the “emergency aid” doctrine to justify a blatant violation of the client’s Fourth Amendment Rights. The call was from a neighbor who heard a vague reference to “get off of me”. When they arrived, the suspect house was quiet and the reporting party refused to explain what she heard. The police searched anyway, leading to the client’s arrest.

In challenging the search, we pointed to the fact that unlike the cases cited above, the police did not personally witness anyone in need of aid or any reason to believe someone was hurt inside the home reported. The Judge sided with police, and the warrantless entry was permitted, despite this lack of evidence “aid” was really needed.

Take Away for Protecting your Rights to Be Free of Government Intrusion at Home

The police are trained to seek evidence of crime, even by violating your right to privacy. This means that what are supposed to be “limited” exceptions of their need to get a warrant are often stretched to allow the police to do this task without any obstacles. The exception to the warrant requirement to render “emergency aid” was so that the police could address and enter property for people really in need of help where there was a clear basis to believe such help was actually needed. As we have seen, this exception has been expanded to allow even vague references to “get off” someone reported by a nosy neighbor as a means to allow police to enter your home, without a warrant, in the middle of the night, with guns drawn.

In order to prevent such violation of your privacy and rights, it is important to be aware of your surroundings, the volume of your voice, and how others around may misconstrue the sounds coming out of your home. This is more necessary is closer knit housing communities. Do not depend on the police to actually get a warrant or do necessary investigation before they violate your privacy.

Not all searches, however, leading to arrests are upheld by the Courts. At Honeychurch & Boyd, we specialize in asserting your Constitutional and Privacy rights and protecting them from the Government. If your rights to have been violated by the police, or if you are charged with a crime by the actions of the police, in the Solano County communities of Fairfield, Green Valley, Vacaville, Benicia, Vallejo, Dixon, or Rio Vista, or anywhere in  Napa and Yolo Counties, call us today for a free consultation today to see how we may be able to defend your rights to the maximum extent of the law and obtain the best results on your behalf.