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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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