Can a police officer reenter your house without a warrant after entering for the purposes of emergency aid, a recognized exception to the warrant requirement? The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently decided no, they cannot.
In Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2013, authorities saw a group of people on the roof of a sorority house’s porch. One man seemed visibly intoxicated and was stumbling around on the roof. Fearing the safety of the man on the roof, the trooper asked permission to enter the house, but the occupants refused. A trooper kicked through the window next to the door and unlocked the door. The troopers then called fire, EMS, and the Shippensburg Borough Police to help. The young man had fallen and was being treated by first responders on the ground by the time troopers reached the roof.
As they left, troopers saw marijuana and paraphernalia on a coffee table, which was seized. Trooper Smolleck testified that he then reentered the sorority house to obtain information to complete a report that he intended to file about damage to the house. After reentering the house, the trooper knocked on a closed bedroom door and asked if anyone was a resident of the house. Wilmer raised her hand. The trooper saw a glass marijuana bong and a pipe sitting in on a nightstand. Wilmer admitted that the items belonged to her, and she was charged with one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.
The trial court denied Wilmer’s Motion to Suppress and she was found guilty and given a fine. The Superior Court affirmed the constitutionality of both the first entry into the house and the second reentry. The Supreme Court granted appeal only on the issue of the second reentry into the house after the emergency that supported the troopers’ initial entry was over.
Under the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures without warrants are “presumptively unreasonable.” However, there are exceptions to the general rule such as the community caretaking doctrine, allowing police to perform activities relating to the health and safety of citizens “unrelated to the detection, investigation and prevention of criminal activity.” Here, the exception at issue is the emergency aid exception under the community caretaking doctrine.
The court found, “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.” Then police must leave the house unless another exception allows their presence under the Fourth Amendment.
After realizing the man had fallen and was being treated by first responders, the exception for being in the house ceased to exist and police had to leave the house. Since the emergency had passed, the troopers could not reenter the house. Therefore, the court held the trial court’s denial of Wilmer’s suppression motion was in error.
In sum, once the emergency that allowed police to enter a residence has concluded, the police may not go back into the residence absent another exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant clause or a warrant.
For more about the community caretaking exception check out our other post:
And to read the court’s full opinion in this case click here.