Exigent Circumstances Exception to Warrant Requirement In California

In People v. Ray (1999) 21 Cal. 4th 464, 981 P.2d 928, the police were called to a residence because the front door had been open all day and the inside was "a shambles." Officers were concerned for the welfare of the people inside. (Id. at p. 468.) Officers approached the front door, which was open approximately two feet. In one officer's experience the circumstance correlated to a "95 percent" likelihood they had encountered a burglary or similar situation. Looking inside, the officer saw clothing and paper strewn on the ground and on the sofa. It appeared as if the front room had been ransacked. Although there were no signs of forced entry, these observations heightened both officers' apprehension. They believed a burglary attempt might be in progress and were concerned for the welfare of inhabitants. the officers knocked several times and loudly announced their presence. They received no response. Increasingly concerned, they entered to conduct a security check to see if anyone might be injured, disabled, or unable to obtain help. They found no one inside but in plain view did observe a large quantity of suspected cocaine and money. (People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal. 4th at p. 468.) In a plurality opinion, three members of our highest court conclude there exists an emergency exit doctrine which is part of a "community caretaking" exception which would allow such entry. (Id. at pp. 467-480.) As viewed by Justices Brown, Baxter and Kennard, the community caretaker exception finds its roots in the expanded functions of modern police forces in assuring the well being of the public as well as apprehension of criminals. The lead opinion in Ray thus offers two exceptions to the warrant requirement: exigent circumstances and the community caretaker exception of which the emergency aid doctrine is a subcategory. The opinion states: "Contrary to the view of the Attorney General, however, the emergency aid doctrine is not a subcategory of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. Rather, it is a subcategory of the community caretaking exception, a distinctly different principle of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. '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. In contrast, 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." (People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal. 4th at p. 471.) By separate opinion, three members of the Ray court, Chief Justice George and Justices Werdegar and Chin, conclude the entry was permissible under the traditional exigent circumstances doctrine. They do not opine or discuss whether an exception to the warrant requirement exists or might be applicable on the facts of Ray. (People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal. 4th at pp. 482-488.) In his dissenting opinion, Justice Mosk concludes there was no exigency and, further, rejects the creation of a community caretaker exception. (Id. at pp. 482-488.)