May 3, 2013 – Reversing the Marathon County Circuit Court, the District IV Court of Appeals held that police officers went beyond the boundaries of the community caretaker exception when a domestic disturbance call led officers to enter and eventually search an apartment in which marijuana plants were found. The opinion in State v. Maddix, 2012AP1632 (April 25, 2013), engages in a comprehensive review of recent Wisconsin case law on the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment, and conducts a detailed discussion of factual distinctions in applying the three-part test to the case.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, District IV Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne F. Kloppenburg determined that the initial entry of the home was justified by the community caretaker exception, but that the officers’ continuing efforts once inside the home were not supported by objectively reasonable evidence.
Facts and Procedural Background
Police officers were called to investigate a domestic disturbance in the upper unit of a duplex in Wausau. En route to the door of the upper unit, two City of Wausau officers heard what appeared to be a woman yelling in the upper unit. Officers knocked at the entrance without a response, but after hearing more “screams again coming from the upstairs,” they forced entry, climbed the stairs to the upper unit, and knocked on the apartment door. Dyllon Maddix opened the door, and the officers immediately entered, holding Maddix and also encountering a woman. The officers separated Maddix and the woman for questioning in different areas of the apartment.
Attorney Brian Kinstler is filling in for Legal Writer Joe Forward during his leave. Brian practices state and federal criminal defense in Milwaukee, and blogs on criminal law issues at www.kinstlerlaw.com/blog.
Maddix explained to one officer that the woman in the apartment was his girlfriend, and they had been arguing because he had “cheated” on her. The other officer interviewed the woman in the bathroom, and she admitted that she was screaming during an argument with Maddix. However, when the officer asked her why she was screaming, the woman replied that she “was scared but didn’t know why [she] was scared.”
The officers conferred, but felt that the woman’s explanation didn’t make sense, and theorized that another person – perhaps an aggressor or victim – might be in the home. On the basis of their concern, and apparently without consent, the officers performed a 10-minute protective sweep of the apartment, finding no one else present. A few minutes after conducting the sweep, the officers realized that neither one had checked a room at the end of a hallway. One officer looked into the room, which was dark, and saw light coming from a closet; after obtaining consent from Maddix, the officer opened the closet and found six marijuana plants.
Maddix moved to suppress the marijuana plants, challenging the officers’ entry into the apartment and the subsequent search. At the close of the hearing, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Gregory Huber ruled that the initial forced entry was justified under the community caretaker exception, and that the initial search through rooms was a legitimate protective sweep. The circuit court further ruled that the follow-up search of the last room was justified under the community caretaker exception because the officers “sincerely believed” that another person was present in the home, and might have needed assistance.
Court of Appeals Leans Heavily on Recent Wisconsin Supreme Court Decisions
On appeal, Maddix did not challenge the initial forced entry by police officers, arguing instead that the community caretaker exception did not justify the searches that led to the discovery of the marijuana. The court of appeals analyzed the search in light of Wisconsin precedent that included two recent cases from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, State v. Pinkard, 2010 WI 81, 327 Wis. 2d 346, 785 N.W.2d 592 (July 15, 2010), and State v. Gracia, 2013 WI 15 (Jan. 31, 2013).
In Pinkard, the supreme court upheld a search on community caretaker grounds where police officers received an anonymous tip of two people unconscious next to drugs and money in a home with an open door. The Pinkard court characterized the facts as a “close case,” but did not find a Fourth Amendment violation because the sleeping occupants could have been victims of crime or an overdose.
In Gracia, an OWI case, police officers were investigating a traffic accident, and located a car parked in a driveway that appeared to have been involved. The officers were let into the home by Gracia’s brother, but when they knocked on Gracia’s bedroom door, he refused to let them in. The Gracia court held that the officers were performing a legitimate community caretaker function because they had an objectively reasonable belief that Gracia had been injured in the accident.
Drawing heavily on Pinkard and Gracia, the court of appeals undertook a detailed community caretaker analysis. The court found that the officers had no objectively reasonable basis to support their subjective belief that a third person might be in the home, and might need assistance.
The opinion also cautioned that even if the officers had been performing a bona fide community caretaking function, any public interest served by the officers’ conduct was outweighed by the high degree of intrusion involved. “To conclude otherwise, in our view, could allow this exception to justify virtually any residential ‘sweep’ as part of a police response to an alleged domestic disturbance.”