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BENCH BLOG: Community caretaker function case highlights decline of high court

Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a reserve judge. She also is of counsel with Nistler Law office SC. She can be reached at jeandimotto@gmail.com

Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after 16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a reserve judge. She also is of counsel with Nistler Law office SC. She can be reached at [email protected]

A majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices expanded the contours of the community-caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement even while embarrassing themselves through the way they reached their decision.

Two Kenosha police officers were dispatched to a medical call at a home where they found a bloodied, intoxicated man. He said he’d been beaten by “four different groups of people,” later changing it to “four people,” outside a bar. Someone in the home said the man lived nearby with his brother and that he had arrived at the residence already injured.

Bloody trail and doors

After the man had been loaded into an ambulance, police followed a blood trail in the snow and found a “significant amount of blood” on the outer and inner doors of what turned out to be the home of the man’s brother, Charles Matalonis. The officers heard two loud bangs, as if something inside were being moved around. Concerned that someone might be injured, they called for back-up and knocked.

Matalonis answered the door and seemed to be uninjured. He said he lived alone and had been defending himself in a fight with his brother. The officers saw blood in the foyer leading to a staircase. They said they were interested in hearing more about the fight and expressed concern that someone might be injured inside. Matalonis let them enter.

While one officer kept an eye on Matalonis, who was then seated on a couch, the other officer searched the rooms on the lower level, finding a few drops of blood in the living room and kitchen. The staircase wall and handrail, moreover, were smeared with blood, and glass shards from a broken mirror lay on the upstairs floor.

The officer found that a small living area on the second floor was unoccupied, but did see marijuana paraphernalia, which he had also noticed in the bathroom. There was also a door that had a few droplets of blood visible on it. It was locked. He heard the noise of a fan coming from inside and smelled a strong odor of marijuana.

The officer obtained the key to the lock and entered the room, immediately seeing a large marijuana plant but no person in the room.

The officers applied for a search warrant but their request was denied. They took possession of evidence in plain view in the home. Matalonis was subsequently charged with the felony manufacture or delivery of not more than four marijuana plants.

Trial court decision

Matalonis brought a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the warrantless search of his home. A hearing was held before Kenosha County Circuit Judge Wilbur Warren, who denied the motion on the grounds that the search was justified under the community-caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a search warrant.

He noted that once the police were inside Matalonis’ home, their search was confined to places where blood had been found and where injured people might also be. “(T)hey didn’t search drawers or places where obviously people could not hide but only rooms and larger areas where bodies might be found. …”

“(T)o have a locked door in a house with blood on that door and not search behind that door and to later find that there’s a dead body or a bleeding body or a person in need of medical assistance behind that door I think would not only be improper, it would be a sign of poor police work.”

Court of Appeals

Judge Gary Sherman from the District 4 Court of Appeals wrote an unpublished opinion reversing Wilbur’s decision. The thrust of the opinion was that the officers didn’t have an objectively reasonable basis for believing anyone was injured in Matalonis’ home.

In contrast, Presiding Judge Brian Blanchard concluded in a dissent that the police did indeed have an objectively reasonable basis to act as community caretakers in Matalonis’ home.

Supreme Court decision

Justice Annette Ziegler wrote a 42-page decision. The court first concluded that the officers had been engaged in a bona fide community-caretaker function at the start of the search.

The circumstances constituting the objectively reasonable basis at that point were the various differing accounts of how many persons had been involved in the battered man’s injuries, the trail of blood leading to the bloody doors and the blood inside Matalonis’ home, as well as the loud noises within.

The court next concluded that the “officers’ community caretaking logically would have been fulfilled only after they had checked the areas of the home where persons might be located.” The numerous signs of drug use did not invalidate the officer’s search for injured people upstairs.

The court noted that the amount of blood leading upstairs, the mirror shards, and the blood droplets on the locked door all provided an objectively reasonable basis to search the locked room. “The potential for … marijuana in the locked room did not render it impossible that there were also injured parties” there.

Lastly, the search pursuant to the community-caretaker function was reasonable for the reasons cited by Judge Wilbur — that the only places searched were where people, not merely objects, could be found.

Prosser dissent

Justice David Prosser dissented, joined by Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, because he believed that the scope of the community-caretaker exception was being “substantially expanded” to give police warrantless access to locked rooms in homes.

His opinion was that the primary reason for entering the locked room in the Matalonis case was the fact that an officer had smelled marijuana and found a fan running at 3 a.m. upstairs amidst plentiful indicia of drug use. Thus, the officer had “stepped out of his caretaking role” at that point and entered the room to investigate criminal activity for which he should have had a search warrant.

The majority’s contrary conclusion transforms the narrow exception of community caretaking into “a powerful investigatory tool.”

“Conveniently, (police) may then retain any evidence of criminal activity that comes into their plain view as they conduct their community caretaking search.”

Abrahamson dissent

Abrahamson’s dissent instead discussed how cases have historically been treated when a new justice has joined the court after a case has been heard and decided but before an opinion is released.

“No precedent appears to exist in the United States Supreme Court or in this court for a new justice who did not participate in oral argument to participate in the case without reargument.”

Here, the original argument was heard by the now-deceased Justice Patrick Crooks. There was no reargument, yet Justice Rebecca Bradley, while not participating in similarly situated cases, selectively participated in this one. Her participation changed a tie vote into a 4-3 vote reversing the court of appeals.

Commentary

This case was a close call from the beginning. Police were denied a warrant to search Matalonis’ residence, yet his motion challenging the search was denied. The Court of Appeals was divided, as was the Supreme Court. In the end, Judge Wilbur’s initial analysis carried the day as quoted by the court of appeals and twice by the Supreme Court majority.

Yet this case is clouded by the unfortunate situation memorialized in Abrahamson’s dissent.

The four justices in the majority discarded traditional court practices when Bradley participated in the majority opinion after that decision had already been made and even though she had not participated in the oral argument. The outcome of the case was thereby changed.

This is an embarrassing ends-justify-the-means maneuver by the majority justices, and deepens the perceptible decline in respect for the court.


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