Wisconsin Supreme Court Grants Law Enforcement Broader Justifications For Warrantless Searches

by Tim Cushing
Feb. 18, 2016

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has just made it easier for the state's law enforcement officers to search residents' houses without a warrant. A 4-3 decision overturned an appeals court opinion finding the opposite. In doing so, the Supreme Court expanded the reach of the state's "community caretaker function" beyond simply allowing the retention of evidence discovered in "plain sight" to that found behind locked doors as well.
We conclude that the officers in this case reasonably exercised a bona fide community caretaker function when they searched Matalonis's home. The officers therefore were not required to obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search in question, and the evidence of marijuana production they obtained should not be suppressed. Because the search was lawful under the community caretaker doctrine, we need not determine whether the search was also justified as a protective sweep.
The evidence of a marijuana grow operation was behind a locked door. Although Matalonis invited them into the house, he did not agree to a search of this locked room. Other paraphernalia in the house led officers to believe there might be illegal substances on the premises, but uncovered nothing else during the cursory search of the house to determine whether any more victims/perpetrators of the violent act that brought them there in the first place might be on the premises.

According to the majority opinion, the blood found on the locked door justified the warrantless search of the room. As it states, the search may not have been wholly justified in hindsight, but the court isn't here to second-guess officers' actions in circumstances such as these.
It is obvious to all, in hindsight, that Matalonis's home did not in fact contain a "member of the public . . . in need of assistance." But that is not the question before us today. Instead, we must decide whether, "under the circumstances as they existed at the time of the police conduct, [the officers were] engaged in a bona fide community caretaker function." Therefore, we are concerned with the extent of the officers' knowledge at the time they conducted the search, not after.
Hindsight is how the Fourth Amendment is served. If the court refuses to second-guess officers' actions, then there's no reason for it to preside over cases like this at all. It may as well dismiss motions to suppress or civil rights lawsuits out of hand if it's not interested in applying hindsight. Courts are avenues of redress, something that only exists after the fact. With this rationale, the court limits itself to accepting whatever justification officers give for their actions and will apparently base other decisions on the subjective statements of law enforcement rather than the more objective stance the court is supposed to be taking.

As the dissent points out, the discoveries made during the caretaking sweep may have generated probable cause for a search, but probable cause is what officers are supposed to take to judges to obtain warrants -- not to excuse warrantless searches after officers told Matalonis to unlock the door or they'd "kick it down."
On the second floor, in plain view, a police officer did see marijuana and a variety of drug paraphernalia——pipes and other smoking utensils, a small silver grinder, and a ceramic water bong. The officer also encountered a locked door with a few droplets of blood scattered on the door. The officer smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming through the door and heard a fan running behind the door.

The date was January 15; the time was after 3:00 a.m. A reasonable person could infer that a fan is not normally operating at such a date and time merely for purposes of comfortable climate control.

In my view, the officer's observations on the second floor, followed by Charles's refusal to give consent to open the locked door, provided ample probable cause for a search warrant for the locked room to search for drugs. Conversely, the officers would have been hard pressed to make a case for a search warrant to find a body in some condition behind the door. Officers had already accounted for other known occupants of the house, including a basement tenant.
The majority decided not to discuss the other justification given for the warrantless search of the locked room: that it was a protective sweep. This works out better for Wisconsin law enforcement because the officers' actions undercut their stated "need" to perform a protective sweep. Matalonis was questioned by officers and asked to sit in the living room until the sweep had been performed. But despite the allegations of violence, the presence of blood in many open areas of the house and Matalonis' inconsistent statements on the night's event and the number of people present in the house, officers never once placed him in cuffs or otherwise restrained him to ensure their safety.

At any point after the caretaking function had been concluded, officers could have taken Matalonis into custody and acquired a search warrant for the locked room. They had evidence an act of violence had occurred on the premises as well as the drug paraphernalia. But officers decided they had a right to search the room then and there. Instead of the suppression of evidence the appeals court recommended, Wisconsin citizens can now be subjected to bogus warrantless searches under the "community caretaking" function. As long as the function is justified, so apparently is any search of any area that can't be immediately viewed during a sweep of a residence. What should have resulted in a search warrant instead presented itself as a threat to "kick a door down," and the state's Supreme Court says that sort of thing is perfectly OK.

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