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State v. Meagher

April 7, 1997

STATE OF WASHINGTON, RESPONDENT,
v.
TOBY PATRICK MEAGHER, APPELLANT.



Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 95-1-05709-4. Date filed: 11/20/95. Judge signing: Hon. Patricia H. Aitken.

PER CURIAM -- Toby Meagher appeals his conviction for possession of a narcotic and controlled substance known as "ecstasy." A police officer, believing that Meagher was high or intoxicated, seized the narcotics in a warrantless search of his pockets. In order to assist medics who were en route to treat Meagher, the officer wanted to find out what drugs Meagher had taken. The trial court admitted the narcotics under the medical emergency exception to the warrant requirement. Because the officer reasonably believed that Meagher may have overdosed on drugs and that immediate discovery of drugs might be necessary to avoid a medical emergency, we hold that the search was valid and affirm Meagher's conviction.

In August 1995, Seattle Police Officer Brian Lundin responded to a reported domestic disturbance at an apartment building in Seattle. When he arrived at the building, several people pointed across the street to Meagher. Meagher was on the corner yelling, jumping, and waving his hands.

When Officer Lundin approached, he saw that Meager was sweating profusely and shaking violently. Meagher was agitated and gave unintelligible responses to Officer Lundin's questions.

Officer Lundin believed that Meagher was high or intoxicated and dangerously dehydrated. He also feared that Meagher might have overdosed on drugs. He took Meagher to his patrol car and called for an ambulance.

While waiting for the medics to arrive, Officer Lundin put Meagher in handcuffs to control his erratic behavior. He frisked Meagher but felt no weapons. Officer Lundin then searched Meagher's front pockets, trying to find any drugs that Meagher might have taken. Officer Lundin seized four capsules from Meagher's pocket. Although not reflected in the officer's report or testimony at a CrR 3.6 hearing, he testified at trial that he showed the drugs to the medics when they arrived. After the ambulance took Meagher to the hospital for diagnosis, Officer Lundin took the evidence to the precinct for testing.

We must decide whether the narcotics were obtained as the result of an unlawful search. Meagher argues that Officer Lundin's reliance on the medical emergency exception to the warrant requirement is merely a pretext for his true purpose of searching for evidence. Because Meagher has failed to establish that the officer's reasonable concern for avoiding a medical emergency was pretextual, we affirm.

A warrantless search is per se unreasonable unless it falls within one of the jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the constitutional warrant requirement. State v. Simpson, 95 Wash. 2d 170, 188, 622 P.2d 1199 (1980). Recognizing the community caretaking function of police officers, the medical emergency exception exists so that officers can assist citizens and protect property. State v. Swenson, 59 Wash. App. 586, 589, 799 P.2d 1188 (1990). This exception allows a warrantless search when:

(1) the officer subjectively believed that someone likely needed assistance for health or safety reasons; (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would similarly believe that there was a need for assistance; and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.

State v. Gocken, 71 Wash. App. 267, 276-77, 857 P.2d 1074 (1993), review denied, 123 Wash. 2d 1024, 875 P.2d 635 (1994). Because there is a real risk of abuse in allowing even well-intentioned searches, the medical emergency exception must be cautiously applied. See State v. Chisholm, 39 Wash. App. 864, 866-67, 696 P.2d 41 (1985). The court must be satisfied that the need for medical assistance is not simply a pretext for conducting an evidentiary search. State v. Lynd, 54 Wash. App. 18, 21, 771 P.2d 770 (1989).

Application of the medical emergency exception turns on the facts and circumstances of each case. State v. Menz, 75 Wash. App. 351, 355, 880 P.2d 48 (1994), review denied, 125 Wash. 2d 1021 (1995).

Officer Lundin's testimony shows that he subjectively believed that Meagher needed medical assistance. And under the facts of this case, a reasonable person would have thought that immediate discovery of drugs might be necessary to avoid a medical emergency. As the trial court stated:

I think [Officer Lundin] acted reasonably, in trying to determine what it was that [Meagher] was taking, whether it was legal or illegal, to assist the medics in treating him. It appeared to be a life-threatening situation. In that situation it would appear to assist medical personnel to know what it was that the defendant was taking, whether it was legal or illegal. In fact, the officer said he didn't know what he was going to find.

We agree. Although Meagher was conscious and an ambulance was on the way when he was searched, his agitated state justified Officer Lundin's actions. The reasonableness of Officer Lundin's actions is explained in the lower court's Conclusions of law:

It was both subjectively and objectively reasonable for Officer Lundin to believe that the defendant was experiencing a medical emergency; indeed, the court concludes that Officer Lundin would have been derelict in his duty if he had not acted as he did. Given this belief, the officer acted reasonably in calling an ambulance and ...


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