Jan. 31, 2012 – On suspicion that Juan Gracia crashed into a traffic pole with his car, police entered his home and bedroom without a warrant to determine if he was okay. Then they arrested him.
In State v. Gracia, 2013 WI 15 (Jan. 31, 2013) a Wisconsin Supreme Court majority (4-3) ruled that police acted under a “community caretaker” exception to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Thus, the court found the search was constitutional.
“The police acted on their concern that Gracia might have sustained a significant injury in the auto accident,” wrote Justice Patrick Crooks. “Given the facts, the warrantless search was reasonable.”
In 2010, the same majority reached the same conclusion in State v. Pinkard, a case in which police entered a home without a warrant to ensure the safety of the occupants inside, then found drugs.
How the Court Ruled
Majority: Crooks, Gableman, Roggensack, Ziegler.
Dissent: Abrahamson C.J., Bradley, Prosser.
The community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment allows police to bypass warrant requirements if they believe action is necessary to protect someone’s safety or well-being. Pinkard represented the first application of the caretaker exception to a home search in Wisconsin.
“What appeared to some members of the Pinkard court as a significant departure from the core principles of the exception is now being stretched and extended even more,” wrote Justice David Prosser in a dissenting opinion. Prosser was joined in dissent by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson (who also wrote a separate dissent) and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. All three dissented in Pinkard.
Police Track Down Gracia
Menasha police received a report of a downed traffic light that was impeding traffic. They raced to the scene to find a traffic light ripped from the ground and partially blocking the roadway.
A detached and mangled license plate near the scene revealed that a Buick Regal was the likely culprit, and its owner the likely suspect. Gracia’s relative was the registered owner of the Buick. He wasn’t home, but police located a family member who said Gracia usually drove the car.
Police arrived at Gracia’s residence to find a smashed up Buick Regal with a missing license plate. Nobody answered the door. They were about to leave when Gracia’s brother, who also lived there, pulled up. Police asked if they could enter to check on Gracia’s well-being. He asked them to wait outside. Eventually, he let the officers in when he realized Gracia had locked himself in the bedroom.
Gracia was yelling in English and Spanish to go away. Police testified that Gracia’s brother then busted the door open with his shoulder. They found Gracia lying on the bed. He was slurring his speech, had bloodshot eyes, and smelled of alcohol intoxicants. Police arrested him for drunk driving.
Gracia moved to suppressed evidence obtained from the warrantless search. The circuit court denied the motion under the “community caretaker” exception. He pleaded no contest to operating with a prohibited alcohol content, fourth offense. He then appealed based on the Fourth Amendment.
Majority Holds on Community Caretaker Exception
Gracia did not object to police entering the home, because his brother provided consent. But Gracia argued that police could not enter his bedroom without a warrant, and the caretaker exception did not apply because police did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe he needed help.
The majority disagreed, citing Gracia’s extensively damaged vehicle, the smashed up traffic light pole, and evidence that police repeatedly stated a concern that Gracia may be injured.
“The brother’s actions provide further support that there was a genuine belief that Gracia might be in need of assistance,” Justice Crooks explained.
The majority rejected the argument that the caretaker exception only applies if “totally divorced” from any investigation into criminal conduct, noting that police work, by nature, is multifaceted. “[I]n the totality of the circumstances, the officers’ subjective intent does not invalidate an otherwise reasonable exercise of the community caretaker function,” Justice Crooks wrote.
Police reasonably exercised the community caretaker function, another requirement for the exception to apply, the majority ruled. “Essentially, the officers found themselves in front of an open door and walked across the threshold to check on someone they thought was injured from a serious car accident,” Crooks wrote.
In dissent, Justice Prosser noted that numerous jurisdictions apply the community caretaker exception only to motor vehicle searches, and the majority has stretched the exception’s limits in home searches.
Justice Prosser noted that police continually expressed concern for Gracia’s well-being while tracking down the whereabouts of a suspected drunk driver who rammed a traffic pole, then left the scene.
“In short, a crime-investigating, crime-solving purpose dominated any other purpose in the officers’ conduct, thereby disqualifying the police from using the community caretaker exception,” wrote Justice Prosser, while noting the officers’ investigation as “expected and completely commendable.”
Chief Justice Abrahamson wrote a separate dissent (joined by Justices Bradley and Prosser), to highlight an unaddressed issue for future cases: whether a refusal can negate the caretaker function.
“The defendant clearly and explicitly told police officers to ‘go away,’” she wrote. “I ask whether the community caretaker exception can justify a warrantless search when there is an explicit and unequivocal refusal by the defendant to permit entry so that he may be taken care of.”
The chief justice noted that unequivocal refusal to permit entry rendered a warrantless entry unreasonable in Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006).
Assistant Attorney General David Perlman represented the state. John Holevoet of Holevoet Law Office LLC, Madison, represented Juan Gracia.