The Community Caretaking Function
In 1999, California judges came up with a new law, the “Community Caretaking Function,” rendering certain police searches and seizures permissible without a warrant. This new interpretation of the law was contrary to the United States 4th Amendment and courts have recently abolished it (20 years later!).
In 1999, the California Supreme Court case of People v Ray dealt with a situation where police entered a home without a warrant because the door was open and the house appeared it had been ransacked/burglarized. Inside the home, police found cocaine and other contraband. Ray argued police violated the U.S. 4th Amendment by entering his home without consent or a warrant. At the time of entering the home, police had no information that potential victims were inside the home or that evidence was in the process of being destroyed inside the home. Such would typically authorize the police to enter a home without a warrant under the doctrine of “Exigent Circumstances.” In Ray however, the Court ruled the police entry was authorized under “the Community Caretaking Function,” thereby expanding the law and sanctioning police behavior which previously would’ve been illegal.
Warrantless Police Searches are Presumptively Unlawful
It has long been the law of the land that police entry into a person’s home, without a warrant, is presumptively unreasonable/illegal under the California and Federal Constitution. Under the 4th Amendment, evidence which results from an unreasonable search is required to be suppressed; this means the evidence seized may not be presented in a trial against the defendant. Entry into one’s home is the chief evil against which the 4th Amendment aims to protect. Thus, warrantless entry into a person’s home requires any evidence obtained inside the home to be suppressed unless the entry fits into one of the well-established search warrant exceptions (such as exigent circumstances, consent, hot pursuit, etc…).
Existing Warrant Exceptions
As discussed, one exception that allows police to enter a home without a warrant is called, “exigent circumstances.” Because of the law regarding “exigent circumstances” police may enter a home, without a warrant, to prevent harm to a person or to halt the imminent destruction of evidence. If the police enter a home without a warrant under “exigent circumstances” they may seize any illegal contraband they see and arrest the homeowner or occupants of the residence if there is probable cause to arrest.
Police may enter a residence if they have the inhabitants’ consent.
Police may enter a suspect’s residence under the doctrine of “Hot Pursuit” if they have the authority to arrest the suspect in public, and chase the suspect from public to the suspect’s residence.
Recent Overturning of Community Caretaking Exception
Recently, the California Supreme Court disagreed with the holding of People v. Ray in the case of People v. Ovieda. In Ovieda the Court found the Community Caretaking Function was not supported by Constitutional Standards that require police to obtain a warrant before they can enter a person’s home. The Justices ruled that if there were no Exigent Circumstances, then the police likely had time to call a judge or magistrate and obtain a warrant. In Ovieda it was suggested that in Ray, the police should have obtained a warrant, and it was unnecessary, and unconstitutional, for the court in Ray to carve out a new warrant exception.
Application of the Community Caretaking Function, Historically
Since People v Ray, no California Appellate Court has applied the Community Caretaking Function as an exception to the 4th Amendment. That is, in all other Appellate Cases, either a warrant, or some other warrant exception, applied or the entry was deemed to be an unreasonable and an illegal search and seizure. In at least two Appellate cases where the prosecution argued the Community Caretaking Function justified warrantless search, the Appellate court rejected that argument.
One of these two cases involved police’s search of a vehicle where the driver refused consent to search, but a passenger in the car appeared to be ill. Police searched the vehicle, founds drugs, and the court suppressed the drugs as fruit of the illegal arrest. In the other case, police believed that a marijuana rip-off had occurred at a residence and they searched the residence without first obtaining a warrant. The police attempted to justify the search under “the Community Caretaking Function” but the court rejected the argument and suppressed the fruits of that search.
The 4th Amendment guarantees the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures from the government. The California Supreme Court in People v Ovieda got it right and reversed People v Ray, stating that the police have a heavy burden when demonstrating that a warrantless entry into a residence was justified, and that police officers’ “Community Caretaking Function” does not justify warrantless entry into a home.
If police searched your home, with or without a warrant, contact RLS Criminal Defense to schedule a FREE initial consultation.