Police's Warrantless Snooping Not Justified Without Reasonable Belief That Someone Needs Help
The Fourth Amendment requires that the police have a warrant when conducting searches and seizures, especially in homes, where citizens are entitled to the greatest "expectation of privacy". The community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement rightfully recognizes that there are times when law enforcement are not investigating crime, but are instead trying to help someone who may be in need of help. Under such circumstances, they should not be required to go through the paces of getting a warrant, mostly because taking that time may result in harm or loss of life.
The problem is, when police do go snooping without a warrant and do find something illegal, they will often attempt to excuse their warrantless conduct in this way. There are instances, in my opinion and experience, where it can get way too 'creative' when testifying officers go down that path.
In Maddix, the police responded to a domestic incident wherein a woman in an apartment was heard my neighbors screaming. The police went into the Maddix residence and spoke with Maddix and the woman. They each separately explained they were arguing about their relationship. The woman said she was the one that was screaming, but didn't know why. They both said no one else was there.
The police had undertaken a "protective sweep" of the apartment (another exception to the warrant requirement. During the course of that, an officer noticed a light coming from under a closet door in another room down a hallway. He speculated that someone might be inside. He opened the door and found marijuana plants under a grow light. The police had been there as long as 35 minutes.
In holding that the community caretaker function did not excuse the search, the court pointed out that there must be "‘objectively reasonable basis’ to believe [that] there is ‘a member of the public who is in need of assistance,’" and to justify on the basis of a "protective sweep", there must be evidence "the officers reasonably believed that the search was necessary to assure the officers’ or others’ safety".
The court found that there was no evidence directly corroborated the officers’ theory that another person was
present in the apartment during the lengthy time they were there. The belief was not objectively reasonable. As the court put it, allowing the search in this case would "allow this exception to justify virtually any residential 'sweep' as part of a police response to an alleged domestic disturbance".
I applaud the Court of Appeals for putting limits on the community caretaker exception. No one wants to limit the ability of police to help people in need, but we also don't want to give them free leave to poke around our private places, especially our homes. As pointed out, if it were allowed in this case, then what case wouldn't qualify? After all, isn't every closed door a potential hiding place for someone in need of help?