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Posted by on Sep 25, 2018 in Criminal, Fourth Amendment, Search | 21 comments

Com v. Wilmer: Community Caretaking exception to warrant requirement lasts until officer is done rendering assistance

A party at a sorority house led to a drunk college kid on the roof of the house, stumbling about, looking as though he were about to fall off the roof. While the “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment justified the police officer’s initial entry into the home in an attempt to keep the young man from falling off the roof, it did not justify the officer’s subsequent re-entry into the house to search the rooms of the home for drugs. The Troopers’ concerns were apparently not unfounded, as the young man ultimately fell off the roof during the time it took the Troopers to get upstairs in an attempt to safely bring him down.

In Com v. Wilmer, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania voted 6-1 that the officer had gone beyond the scope of the caretaking doctrine in his actions, and the search was suppressed.

Majority by Donohue: An officer must do no more than reasonably necessary to determine whether someone needs assistance and to provide that assistance

Citing to scholarly works on Search and Seizure as well as to high court decisions from a number of other jurisdictions, Justice Donohue explains that the community caretaking doctrine is “strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.” The officer who enters a home must do “no more than is reasonably necessary to ascertain whether someone is in need of assistance and to provide that assistance.” (quoting Wayne LaFave, Search and Seizure). “In other words,” the majority explains, “the right of entry into the private dwelling by law enforcement officers terminates when either the necessary emergency assistance has been provided or it has been confirmed that no one inside needs emergency assistance.”

The Court goes further, explaining that the officers “were required to leave the premises immediately” once the young man had fallen off the roof. Their failure to actually vacate the premises, and the decision to re-enter the premises later, invalidated the subsequent search.

Dissent by Mundy: The requirement to leave is a new requirement

Justice Mundy dissents, arguing that the majority has “created a new requirement that the moment the emergency is abated, any police presence must independently satisfy a separate Fourth Amedment exception, or they must leave the premises.” Justice Mundy would have affirmed the Superior Court in finding that the re-entry was a continuation of the reason the police were there in the first place, and thus, was justified under the Fourth Amendment.

Conclusion: The Community Caretaking doctrine is narrowly limited

This is the second case in a year on the community caretaking doctrine, and the second time the Court has taken a step to limit its scope. The Court has made clear in both decisions that an individual’s statement that they do not need assistance should bring an end to the police encounter absent another justification for remaining on the scene. In this case, a young woman in one of the rooms “lifted her hand” as though to indicate stop to the Troopers, who nonetheless continued searching the rooms without justification. The Court has laid down two cases now to support defense counsel in limiting the scope of these searches.

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Posted by on Feb 26, 2018 in Appellate, Criminal, Fourth Amendment, Harmless Error, Search | 17 comments

Com v. Fulton: Warrantless Cell Phone searches violate both Constitutions

In a relatively-unsurprising re-affirmation of recent SCOTUS caselaw, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled 6-0 in Commonwealth v. Fulton that a warrantless search of a cell phone is unconstitutional and must be suppressed. SCOPA also ruled that the search violates Article I, section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which places this ruling out of the reach of any changes in Federal search jurisprudence in the future.

The Philadelphia Police (who once arrested one of the world’s first serial killers), after arresting I. Dean Fulton on gun charges, kept his cell phone separate from the other evidence and, without obtaining a warrant, monitored incoming calls to the phone, and answered them. After meeting with Heather Warrington, who called the phone looking to buy heroin, homicide detectives were able to discover a wealth of physical evidence which, along with Warrington’s testimony, led to Fulton’s conviction for a recent murder.

Majority by Donohue: Riley v. California already decided this, and we agree

In a unanimous opinion, Justice Donohue rules for the 6-0 majority that SCOTUS’s decision in Riley v. California controls the search of any cell phone, and that the officer’s actions in this case violated that ruling. The Court further rules that such a search is clearly unreasonable, and should be seen as a violation of the Commonwealth’s Constitution as well. Rejecting the Superior Court’s ruling that the “specific intrusion complained of” in the search in this case was “minimal,” the Court noted that Riley established a per se rule against cell phone searches without a warrant.

The more interesting analysis is that of harmless error. The Court notes that a witness’s testimony is not suppressed as often as physical evidence because a witness may choose to come forward on his own, and may not need to be discovered via a warrantless search. To put it differently, it is more likely that a witness may come forward and therefore be attenuated from the illegal search than discovered documents or hard evidence. A major factor to consider, then, is whether the witness would likely have come forward voluntarily or not.

In this case, the witness was a heroin addict, and unlikely to be cooperative with police or to come forward voluntarily. The police only discovered her existence by monitoring incoming calls to the cell phone, and were unlikely to discover her otherwise. Therefore, the witness’s testimony is suppressed, along with all the hard evidence discovered as a result of the search.

Conclusion: Could have been a summary reversal

The Court’s opinion is well-reasoned, and a minor victory for privacy advocates. This case was not difficult; SCOTUS caselaw was clear on the point, and the Commonwealth’s argument that a warrantless search that led to all of the evidence in the case was “harmless” was untenable. The Court probably could have issued a summary reversal for proceedings consistent with Riley, but perhaps wanted to flesh out the nature of “harmless error” in the context of a witness’s testimony.

Finally, worth noting, in footnote 19, the Court notes that Fulton did not litigate whether harmless error can be found by a court sua sponte, and leave the question “unsettled.” This invitation for a challenge to the Superior Court’s consideration of harmless error sua sponte should be noted by the appellate bar for future challenges.

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