15 Chap. L. Rev. 685 (No PDF)
Chapman Law Review
DIGEST: PEOPLE V. TROYER
Katie M. Haldorsen
Copyright (c) 2012 Chapman Law Review; Katie M. Haldorsen
Opinion by Baxter, J., with Chin, J., Corrigan, J., and George, J., concurring. Concurring opinion by Werdegar, J. Dissenting opinion by Kennard, Acting C.J., with Moreno, J., concurring.
Whether the emergency aid exception to justify a warrantless entry by the police into a residence is satisfied when the police are aware that a recent shooting had occurred at the residence and there is the potential for additional victims to be inside the residence.
Whether the emergency aid exception justifies searching additional floors of the residence when there is no evidence of victims on the first floor.
On June 6, 2007, Sergeant Tim Albright responded to reports that shots had been fired in the city of Elk Grove. The report stated that an unidentified male had “possibly been shot twice.” Adrien Abeyta was bleeding profusely at the scene. Examining the residence, Albright noticed blood droplets and smudge marks on the front door. It appeared that a victim had come in contact with the front door. Albright asked Abeyta whether anyone was inside the residence, and Abeyta did not respond. Albright repeated the question. Abeyta said that he “did not think so.” Albright asked the question for a third time and “Abeyta took a ‘long’ pause to stare at the officer and then said ‘no.”’ Given the chaos and Abeyta’s head trauma, Albright was concerned with Abeyta’s response. He felt the response was either untruthful or, due to the head injury, inaccurate. Albright believed that there may have been additional victims inside the residence. Because the window blinds were closed, Albright could not look inside the residence to confirm or deny his suspicions.
At this point, Albright decided that he should verify whether additional victims were inside the home. Albright asked Abeyta for his keys, and Abeyta declined to give permission to enter. Albright stated that the alternative was to kick down the front door. Abeyta then complied and unlocked the front door. A team of police officers announced their presence, entered the house, searched the downstairs, and proceeded upstairs. While searching, Officer Samuel Seo approached a locked bedroom on the second floor. He announced his presence, received no response, and kicked the door down. Instantly, Officer Seo smelled the strong odor of marijuana and observed an electronic scale and “quarter-size balls of the drug.” Officer Seo relayed this information to a detective, who prepared an affidavit for a search warrant. The search conducted pursuant to the warrant “uncovered additional marijuana; a live marijuana plant; two semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun, a Winchester rifle, and ammunition; over $9000 in cash; and indicia linking defendant Albert Troyer to the residence.”
The superior court denied a motion brought by the defendant to suppress the evidence found in his house. The Court of Appeal reversed, however, directing the trial court to grant the motion to suppress. It reasoned that the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement only permitted search of the downstairs, not upstairs. It held that there were insufficient facts indicating that the officers could “reasonably believe there was somebody inside the locked upstairs bedroom who was seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.” The People petitioned for review. The Supreme Court of California granted the petition, and reversed.
The emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement allows police officers to enter homes when they have an “objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury,” and it is “measured by the facts known to the officers.” The exception “does not depend on the officers’ subjective intent or the seriousness of any crime they are investigating when the emergency arises.”
The defendant urged the court to impose further requirements on emergency aid exception. He contended that “the objectively reasonable basis . . . must be established by proof amounting to ‘probable cause,’ which is . . . ‘a reasonable ground for belief of guilt’ that is ‘particularized with respect to the person to be searched or seized.”’ The court rejected this. It stated that it made little sense to impose a criminal concept to a noncriminal search, and “where the police must make split-second decisions as to whether someone is in need of immediate aid, not whether someone could be arrested for a crime.” The court determined that there was a strong governmental interest in quick police action when it was reasonably believed to be necessary to prevent serious injury or death, and that this governmental interest outweighed any affront to privacy that may result from the police entering a home.
The court went on to conclude that “the record amply supported” a reasonable belief by the police that an occupant in the house might have been seriously injured. Police dispatch stated that shots had been fired, and Albright’s observations of blood indicated that a shooting occurred near the doorway area and the victim came in contact with the door. Also, police dispatch indicated that a male victim had been shot twice and no victim was found when Albright arrived. Albright also did not believe that Abeyta fit the description of the dispatch report because he did not appear to have gunshot wounds. Even if “Abeyta might have suffered a gunshot wound [it] did not foreclose the reasonable possibility that the male victim described in the original dispatch was still at large.” Albright also had concerns regarding Abeyta’s truthfulness and credibility due to his inconsistent and evasive answers when asked about others inside the residence. Finally, since the window blinds were closed, Albright was foreclosed from peering into the residence to verify Abeyta’s answers. The totality of these events provided an objectively reasonable basis to enter the residence and search for additional victims.
The court compared this case to Tamborino v. Superior Court. The court explained in Tamborino that the observation of the defendant who was laying on the floor bleeding, coupled with the earlier report of a crime, “constituted ‘articulable facts’ that reasonably could have led the officer to decide that an immediate, brief search of the apartment was warranted to determine whether additional persons were present at the crime scene.” The court in Tamborino said that “the discovery of one wounded victim afforded reasonable cause to enter and briefly search for additional victims.” Given the similarity of facts, the police entry in this case “was no less justifiable than the police reentry” in Tamborino.
The court then rejected the reasoning in Hannon v. State. In Hannon, the Supreme Court of Nevada “emphasized that the . . . domestic disturbance ‘[had] already dissipated,”’ as the police officer arrived forty-five minutes after the report and there was no reason to believe that others in the apartment needed emergency assistance. Unlike Hannon, the police here arrived within minutes after the report, found bleeding victims and “blood on the door,” there was “an unaccounted for male victim,” and Abeyta gave “evasive or unreliable responses . . . as to whether anyone was inside need[ing] assistance.” These constituted articulable facts upon which Albright formed the objectively reasonable basis that other potential victims may be in the residence.
The court disagreed with the Court of Appeal in its conclusion that the scope of the search was unreasonable. The court stated that “the same facts that justified entry into the residence justified a search of places where a victim could be, which included the upstairs bedroom.” The reported male victim was unaccounted for when Albright arrived and it was unlikely that he traveled far. The blood found on the front door indicated that “an injured victim had come in contact with it while entering or exiting the residence.” Simply because Officer Seo “did not see any blood on the first floor . . . did not negate the objectively reasonable belief that a victim might still have been inside the house.” Absence of blood indicates only that the injured victim did not directly contact anything on the first floor. Bloodstains and signs of struggle “are not prerequisites to a finding of exigency.”
The court compared this case with Hunsberger v. Wood. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that “it was reasonable for the officer . . . to enter a home to protect against vandalism and to locate a missing girl.” It noted that because “there was no evidence of vandalism in the main living area[,] [it] did not require the conclusion that all was well in the Hunsberger house.” It stated that “[v]andals do not confine their search for valuables to downstairs rooms, nor do they rule the upstairs out of bounds for hiding or for inflicting serious harm on others they may happen upon in a house.” Like Hunsberger, where the officers searched the entire house, there is no reason to assume that the “criminals who perpetrated the shooting here would have ruled the upstairs out of bounds.” The “‘hindsight determination that there was in fact no emergency’ does not rebut the objectively reasonable basis for believing that someone in the house was injured or in danger.” “[T]he question is whether the officers would have been derelict in their duty had they acted otherwise.”
The Supreme Court of California reversed the Court of Appeal. It held that the emergency aid exception to a warrant requires only “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured” or threatened. The court held that the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that shooting victims could be inside the defendant’s house. Furthermore, the court held that the police officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that shooting victims could be inside the locked upstairs bedroom and the scope of the search was reasonable. Finally, the court held that the officers’ manner of entry was reasonable.
Justice Werdegar concurred in the judgment and noted “that the locked bedroom door presented the officers with ‘obvious risks’ to their own safety, risks they could reasonably decide were too great to ignore.” He stated that officer safety does not fall within the emergency aid exception as it deals with threats to officers, not assisting victims. The search also did not fall within the “protective sweep” exception under Maryland v. Buie. Nevertheless, he stated that the court could not reasonably demand police officers to assist victims and investigate crime scenes without securing themselves against the chaotic scene of a shooting.
Chief Justice Kennard dissented and would have affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal. She concluded that the officers’ conduct was unlawful and violated the Fourth Amendment. Chief Justice Kennard stated that even though Albright could not see into the house because the blinds were drawn, he did not hear sounds coming from inside. There was no evidence of forced entry or any bullet holes in the windows. Also, the vagueness of the dispatch report, by using words such as “possibly” and “unidentified,” provide the logical inference that the informant may have been mistaken about the victim’s gender, not that there was an unidentified victim in the residence. Additionally, she noted that Albright did not ask anyone if such a victim existed before entering the residence and only asked the distressed Abeyta whether anyone was inside the house. Finally, the presence of blood on the door was likely attributed to Abeyta, who was bleeding profusely.
Inside the house, the officers saw no signs of a struggle, saw no blood smears or droplets, and heard no noise indicating that someone was inside. These facts suggest that there was no objectively reasonable basis to search the upstairs of the residence. Finally, Chief Justice Kennard did not think that Abeyta’s responses, when asked about potential victims in the residence, were inconsistent or sinister.
The court’s decision expanded the emergency aid exception to warrantless searches to allow for greater application. While the concept of “objectively reasonable basis” is amorphous, the court provided greater leniency for police officers when placed in the precarious position of making split-second decisions. One of the purposes of suppression resulting from searches violating the Fourth Amendment is to deter police misconduct. To suppress here would not serve the purpose of deterrence, but may make officers less inclined to search for potential victims, which may result in injury to both victims and officers. The application of “objectively reasonable basis” for the emergency aid exception allows police officers to surmise the known facts of the scene and make quick decisions, even if those decisions do not result in locating additional victims.