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California Court Upholds Warrantless Search After Police Break into Residence Under Community Caretaking Exception


Criminal defendants in California and throughout the country have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, as a recent California case shows, there are exceptions to the general requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search. The issue before the California appeals court was whether police could enter a residence without a warrant based on the role of the police as a “community caretaker.”

In that case, the police responded to a report that 11 gunshots had been fired. They came to a house and found a spent shell casing on the driveway. They arrested an individual on the scene who was yelling at the officers, and found additional spent casings behind a gate leading to the back yard. An officer knocked on a door on the side of a garage apartment several times. No one answered, but he heard what he believed was items being pushed against the door. The officers spoke to other people at a window and at the front door of the house.

According to police, the defendant’s father let police enter the house and was looking for a key to open the garage apartment when the defendant came out of the apartment, shutting the door behind him, which automatically locked the door. The officer arrested the defendant and kicked the door open to the garage apartment. He found a semiautomatic pistol and an explosive device. The officers later obtained a search warrant and searched the residence. They found an additional handgun, bullets, a body armor vest, spent shell casings, and a bag with a clear, rock-like substance. Police later found surveillance video which showed the defendant walking down the driveway, pulling out a gun and firing six shots into the air. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his apartment because he claimed the police’s initial search was in violation of the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states in part that people have the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” However, under the community caretaking exception, police can enter without a warrant in order to carry out its role as a caretaker. California courts have explained that in order to meet the exception police cannot use a search in furtherance of or as a pretext for a criminal investigation.

The appeals court held that in this case, there was no suggestion that the police were looking for contraband or doing anything besides ensuring that there were no victims inside or another person with a weapon who posed a threat to others. The court held that even though in this case the officer did not know of a specific person who might be in danger or might pose a threat to others, because the circumstances suggested that a person might be inside the apartment, police could reasonably enter to determine whether a person was present. Therefore, the court upheld the search as valid. The case was appealed to the California Supreme Court, and the result is pending.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been arrested for or charged with a crime, contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Pleasanton Attorney John W. Noonan has more than 45 years of experience in criminal law, and represents clients in all criminal matters, including California gun crimes and drug offenses.  Attorney Noonan represents defendants in juvenile and adult state court from his offices in Dublin and Manteca. Call the Law Offices of John W. Noonan 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling us at (925) 886-4281 or by filling out a form through our website.