California Exigent Circumstances Exception to the Fourth Amendment
In People v. Ray (1999) 21 Cal.4th 464, a trial court concluded that a warrantless residential search by police was unlawful and granted the defendant's suppression motion.
The appellate court reversed the suppression ruling, concluding that the search was lawful under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.
The Supreme Court concluded that the search was lawful and affirmed the judgment of the appellate court; one justice dissented.
The six justices split on the issue of the theory supporting the affirmance. In the lead opinion, three justices distinguished two exceptions to the warrant requirement--the exigent circumstances exception, and the community caretaking exception.
The lead opinion observed that "'When the police act pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception, they are searching for evidence or perpetrators of a crime. Accordingly, in addition to showing the existence of an emergency leaving no time for a warrant, they must also possess probable cause that the premises to be searched contains such evidence or suspects.'" ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 471.)
However, the lead opinion observed that police have a host of duties unrelated to criminal investigation. Thus, the lead opinion stated, "courts refer to these diverse police duties and responsibilities collectively as 'community caretaking functions.'" ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 472.)
The lead opinion also stated, "'the community caretaker exception is only invoked when the police are not engaged in crime-solving activities.'
With respect to Fourth Amendment guaranties, this is the key distinction:
'The defining characteristic of community caretaking functions is that they are totally unrelated to the criminal investigation duties of the police.' Upon entering a dwelling, officers view the occupant as a potential victim, not as a potential suspect." ( Id. at p. 471.)
According to the lead opinion, one subcategory of the community caretaking exception is the emergency aid exception. Under the emergency aid exception, police "'may enter a dwelling without a warrant to render emergency aid and assistance to a person whom they reasonably believe to be in distress and in need of that assistance.'
'"The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.'" ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 470.)
The lead opinion also stated that the emergency aid exception requires "specific, articulable facts indicating the need for '"swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property . . . .'" ( Id. at pp. 472-473, italics added.)
However, the lead opinion concluded that the emergency aid exception was merely one subcategory of the community caretaking exception. ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 473.)
The lead opinion then discussed principles supporting another subcategory of the community caretaking exception, a subcategory that we will hereafter refer to as the "nonemergency aid" exception.
Thus, the lead opinion observed that "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." (Id. at. p. 473.)
The lead opinion later stated, "although this court has not articulated these principles in terms of 'community caretaking functions,' it has long recognized that 'necessity often justifies an action which would otherwise constitute a trespass, as where the act is prompted by the motive of preserving life or property and reasonably appears to the actor to be necessary for that purpose." (Ibid.)
The lead opinion cited People v. Roberts (1956) 47 Cal.2d 374, a case which upheld a warrantless residential search as lawful.
The lead opinion noted that, in Roberts, the officers' actions were proper because they "'only made that kind of search reasonably necessary to determine whether a person was actually in distress somewhere in the apartment.'" ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 473, quoting People v. Roberts, supra, 47 Cal.2d at pp. 378-379, italics added.)
Ray's lead opinion observed that Roberts had relied in part on the provision in the Restatement of Torts which states, "'one is privileged to enter or remain on land in the possession of another if it is or reasonably appears to be necessary to prevent serious harm to. . (b) the other or a third person, or the land or chattels of either . . . ." ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 474.)
The lead opinion later noted, "in People v. Hill, supra, 12 Cal. 3d at pages 754-755, we relied on People v. Roberts, . . . in again concluding, 'a warrantless entry of a dwelling is constitutionally permissible where the officers' conduct is prompted by the motive of preserving life and reasonably appears to be necessary for that purpose.'
In Hill, the officers reasonably believed someone within the premises might require aid and 'entering . . . was the only practical means of determining whether there was anyone inside in need of assistance.' (12 Cal. 3d at p. 755.)" ( People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 474.)