Feb. 11, 2016 – Believing someone could be injured inside, police officers searched a Kenosha man’s home without a warrant, including a locked room that contained a marijuana plant. Recently, a Wisconsin Supreme Court majority (4-3) upheld the search.
Charles Matalonis – who was charged and later convicted for growing marijuana – argued that police violated his constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment) when they searched his residence without a warrant.
But a majority in State v. Matalonis, 2016 WI 7 (Feb. 10, 2016), ruled that police were searching Matalonis’s home for injured persons after observing blood in and around the residence. Thus, they were exercising a bona fide “community caretaker function.”
“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,” wrote Justice Annette Ziegler for the four-justice majority.
However, three justices dissented. Justice David Prosser, joined by Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Anne Walsh Bradley, said the majority’s opinion substantially expands the community caretaker function without any compelling justification.
“[T]he majority’s embrace of a broad, ever-expanding version of the exception risks transforming a shield for evidence encountered incidental to community caretaking into an investigatory sword,” Justice Prosser wrote.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 15, 2012, Kenosha police officers were dispatched to an apartment for a medical call. When they approached the residence, they observed what appeared to be blood on the door. Inside, they found Antony Matalonis.
How the Court Ruled
Majority: Ziegler, R. Bradley, Gableman, C.J. Roggensack.
Dissent: Prosser, Abrahamson, A. Bradley.
Antony, who did not live there, was bloodied and intoxicated. He said he got beat up by people outside a bar. Police called an ambulance and he was transported to the hospital. The resident told police that Antony lived down the street with his brother.
The resident also told police that Antony arrived there injured. Police checked the surrounding area, and tracked a blood trail in the snow. The trail led to the side door of residence down the street. Officers observed blood on the exterior side door.
One officer would later testify that he heard two load bangs inside, as if someone was shuffling things, and said there was a concern that someone may be injured inside.
Police knocked on the front door and Charles Matalonis answered. Officers said he seemed upset about something, and observed blood in and around the inside foyer. Matalonis said he and his brother Antony had been in a fight, but his brother left and no one else was inside the house. He told police he lived alone.
Charles said he was forced to defend himself and was in the process of cleaning up the blood when police arrived. He let the officers inside. Once inside, the officers ordered Charles to remain seated on the couch while they conducted a search of the home. They said they wanted to determine if anyone else was there and injured.
Police searched the lower level, including the kitchen and living room, finding some drops of blood. They searched the basement, where no blood was present. Then they searched the second floor, where droplets of blood were leading.
They observed a shattered mirror and more blood. They did not find anyone else, but did observe drug paraphernalia and marijuana in a side room. They noticed more blood on a different upstairs room, but the door was locked with a deadbolt. The officer smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming through the door, and heard a fan blowing.
Police asked what was inside the room, and Matalonis said it was a security room where he kept valuables. They asked him to open it. He refused. The officers told him that he could open the door for them or they would break it down.
Ultimately, an officer obtained the key, found upstairs, and entered the room to find a large marijuana plant. At a suppression hearing, police said he helped them locate the key. Matalonis said the cops located it without assistance and he did not consent.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
Community Caretaker Function Applies
After the Kenosha County Circuit Court denied Matalonis’s motion to suppress evidence, he pleaded no contest to growing marijuana.
On appeal, the state court of appeals reversed, concluding that officers were not exercising a community caretaker function when they uncovered the pot plant because they did not have a reasonable basis to believe an injured person was inside the home.
But the supreme court majority did not agree, reversing the appeals court decision. The majority noted that the community caretaker function allows officers to conduct warrantless searches if they reasonably believe that someone is in harm’s way.
“We have no difficulty concluding that the officers in this case were engaged in a bona fide caretaker function at the time they searched the house and the locked room,” Ziegler wrote. “As the circuit court found – and the circuit court’s findings were not clearly erroneous – the officers were not searching for evidence, but for injured parties.”
The majority concluded that under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to believe other injured persons could be inside the house.
“Similarly, were are convinced that [police] had the welfare of potentially injured parties in mind when he obtained access to the locked room in question,” Justice Ziegler wrote.
“The fact that there was evidence of drug use in the house was not [the police’s] fault, and we find no reason to disturb the circuit court’s conclusion that the reason for the search was to check the house for injured parties,” she wrote for the majority.
The majority also concluded that police acted reasonably in conducting their community caretaker function. Although police displayed “considerable” force and authority while inside the home, it was appropriately tailored to the situation, the majority explained.
And the majority concluded that the public’s interest in the search, to find possibly injured persons who needed help, outweighed Matalonis’s privacy interests.
Justice Prosser Dissent
Joined by Justices Abrahamson and A. Bradley, Justice Prosser wrote a dissenting opinion, concluding the majority went too far with the community caretaker exception.
Justice Prosser said the police’s “theory” that someone could be dead or injured behind the locked door “was pursued to extreme lengths,” and could be motivated by the fact that police knew marijuana “would almost certainly be found beyond the locked door.”
“This expansive conception of community caretaking transforms community caretaking from a narrow exception into a powerful investigatory tool,” Justice Prosser wrote.
“No longer limited to the purpose of allowing the State to rely upon evidence obtained by law enforcement officers incidental to their provision of valuable services to the public, community caretaking becomes an end in itself,” Justice Prosser explained.
Justice Abrahamson Dissent
Justice Abrahamson wrote a separate dissent, arguing that Justice Rebecca Bradley should not have participated in the case because she was appointed to the court after oral arguments. Without Justice R. Bradley’s participation, the decision would be a 3-3 split, and a 3-3 split would mean the appeals court decision would be affirmed.
“No precedent appears to exist in the United States Supreme Court or in this court for a new justice who did not participate in oral argument to participate in the case without reargument,” Justice Abrahamson wrote, although no justice’s joined her dissent.
Abrahamson noted that R. Bradley joined the court Oct. 9, 2015 and did not participate in other cases that were already argued and decided before she joined the court.
This case, Abrahamson said, was “tentatively decided” after oral argument on Sept. 18, 2015, and there was no “reargument.” She said new justices, unless there is a reargument, should not participate in cases that were heard before they join the court.