Nov. 19, 2021 – The Fourth Amendment did not bar the admission of evidence discovered by a police officer who saw a dead body inside a garage after the garage owner called 911 to report a possible homicide.
State v. Ware, 2020AP1559-CR (Nov. 4, 2021), the Court of Appeals District IV held that the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s ban on warrantless searches applied to a search of a garage attached to the residence where Laverne Ware, Jr. lived.
Under Wisconsin law, the emergency aid exception applies if, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have believed that (1) there was an immediate need to provide aid to someone due to actual or threatened physical injury, and (2) immediate entry into an area in which a person had a reasonable expectation of privacy was necessary to render aid.
The state met that test in Ware’s case, wrote Judge Michael R. Fitzpatrick for at three-judge panel.
Police officers arrested Ware at his residence after responding to a 911 call made by the owner of the residence. The officers discovered a dead body inside the garage that was attached to the residence.
At trial, Ware’s lawyer moved to suppress the evidence from the garage because it was obtained without a warrant. The trial court ruled that the search fell under the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment and denied the motion.
A Dodge County jury convicted Ware of first degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse with intent to conceal a crime, incest, and possession of a firearm as a felon.
Blood in the Garage
The 911 call came from Vernon Mickey, who owned the residence. Ware and his mother Marjorie Jones, who was Mickey’s girlfriend, also lived at the house.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by
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During the 911 call, Mickey told the operator he’d seen a lot of blood in the garage and that he thought it was the blood of Ware’s girlfriend. Mickey also said he thought there was a body in the garage, although he said he had not seen a body. He hadn’t seen Ware’s girlfriend since the previous night, Mickey told the operator.
Two Dodge County Sheriff’s Office deputies were dispatched to the residence while an officer from the Randolph Police Department met Mickey at a gas station. At the gas station, Mickey told one of the deputies and the Randolph police officer that he’d looked through a door into the garage and saw blood coming from a pickup truck. He hadn’t seen a body, Mickey said.
Mickey said he hadn’t seen Ware’s girlfriend since the night before and thought that “something bad” had happened to her. Mickey said Ware and his girlfriend had been arguing. Ware and Jones were both at the residence, Mickey told the police. He also said that Ware had been drinking and had access to a gun.
Mickey, the police officer, and the deputy drove back to the residence. Ware wasn’t home, Jones told them. When one of the deputies asked Jones for consent to search the residence, she declined. The deputy said he would request a search warrant and that Jones would have to leave while the deputies secured the premises.
At that point, Ware appeared from around a corner. He was clad in a three-quarter length mink coat and his arms were outstretched, with a cigarette in one hand.
“I am the one you are looking for,” Ware said.
The police handcuffed Ware and put him in a squad car. After Ware appeared, the deputy thought there might be a victim of a crime in the garage. He decided to search the garage.
The deputy and Mickey walked into the kitchen, which was connected to the garage by an entryway. When the deputy looked through the door between the entryway and the garage, he saw a pickup truck in the garage. A dark red liquid was pooled on the garage floor beneath the passenger side door.
The deputy stepped into the garage. He saw a dead body in the truck’s front passenger seat.
Emergency Aid Exception
Both parties devoted their opening briefs to arguments about the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. But before Ware could file his reply brief, the U.S. Supreme Court held in
Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596, 1600 (2021) that the community caretaker exception applies only to automobile searches.
In a letter of supplemental authority, the state indicated it would argue instead that the emergency aid exception authorized the warrantless search of the garage.
Under the emergency aid exception, a warrantless search is permitted if the official who conducts the search has an objectively reasonable belief somebody needs immediate aid or assistance. The rationale for the exception is that preserving human life is as important as the right to privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment.
It was reasonable for the deputy who searched the garage to believe that there was immediate need to provide aid to someone due to an actual or threatened injury, based on Mickey’s statements that he’d seen a large pool of blood beneath the pickup truck in his garage, that Ware and his girlfriend had been arguing, and that he’d not seen Ware’s girlfriend since the night before.
Additionally, Mickey had told the 911 operator that he thought the blood in the garage was from Ware’s girlfriend and later told the deputies that he thought something bad had happened to Ware’s girlfriend.
Mickey’s statement that Ware had been drinking and had access to a gun supported to deputy’s reasonable belief that immediate aid was needed. And Ware’s presence at the residence corroborated Mickey’s version of events, Pfitzinger wrote.
“Once Ware made his appearance at the residence, the officers were able to verify that Mickey was correct about Ware’s location and, as a result, could reasonably believe that Mickey may also be correct about the presence of blood and a potential victim in the garage.”
The fact Mickey had seen a large pool of blood in the garage while neither he, Jones or Ware had lost a large amount of blood also supported the deputy’s reasonable belief that someone was injured and needed aid, Pfitzinger wrote.
Personal Observation Not Required
The deputy also had an objectively reasonable belief that immediate entry into the garage was necessary to render aid. This was true despite the fact that the person whose blood Mickey had seen was possibly dead.
“Even though the officers were investigating a potential homicide, [the deputy] was not required to rule out the possibility that the person whose blood was seen by Mickey was still alive,” Pfitzinger wrote. “Because Mickey had not reported seeing a body, [the deputy] could reasonably believe that the person in the garage may still be alive and that swift action was necessary to assist that person.”
Ware argued that the emergency aid exception should not apply because when the deputies and the police officer arrived at Mickey’s residence, they observed nothing that would indicate an ongoing medical emergency.
The emergency aid exception does not require officials to personally observe indications of an ongoing medical emergency, Pfitzinger wrote. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that the exception was met by a police officer and social worker who entered a residence after receiving an anonymous call that children living there were in danger.
“Even though the government officials had not personally observed any indication of harm to the children before entering the home, our supreme court
concluded that a reasonable person could have relied on the anonymous caller’s information and ‘believed that a situation existed requiring an immediate need for aid or assistance due to actual or threatened physical injury to the children,’” Pfitzinger wrote.