Warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable because they violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. But "'there are a few, jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement.'" The State bears the burden of proving an exception applies.
Here, the State relies on the emergency aid exception to support the validity of a warrantless search of locked rooms in Christopher Moore's home. During that search, police officers discovered illegal drugs that served as the basis for his arrest, prosecution, and conviction. Because this record fails to show that the emergency aid exception applies to this case, we reverse.
The unchallenged findings of fact from the CrR 3.6 hearing provide context.
On December 9, 2010, police officers were dispatched to an address in Marysville in response to a 911 call reporting "a physical domestic." This report of a physical "domestic disturbance" identified Christopher Moore and S.B. as the persons involved. The 911 caller indicated he had received a call from "the victim, [S.B.], " but she "had been disconnected." The caller also explained that he was "unable to reach [S.B.] further."
Upon arrival at the Marysville residence, two police officers spoke with Moore, who identified himself immediately when he answered the door. They asked "if they could come inside and talk." "[Moore] responded 'Sure.'"
Once inside, one of the two officers spoke with Moore "while [the other officer] began a protective sweep of the residence." The officers noted that Moore "appeared calm, as did two children who were seated in an adjacent family room watching TV." The officers also noted that "nothing appeared out of the ordinary inside the residence."
While speaking with Moore, the officer who remained with him near the residence's entrance learned additional information from dispatch. The 911 caller told dispatch that he "had received the call from [S.B.] that evening with [S.B.] crying and stating that 'Chris' had 'beat the s out of [her]." The 911 caller further reported that "he heard some yelling and a disturbance and the line went dead; he was unable to get [S.B.] back on the phone." As the officer near the entrance spoke with Moore, he "confirmed that his girlfriend was [S.B.] and they had an argument that evening but that she'd left some time earlier."
During the "protective sweep, " the other officer found one marijuana plant in the bathroom and discovered three locked doors, which Moore declined to open when asked to do so. An officer kicked in two of the three locked doors, searching for S.B. Moore then provided a key to the third door. They did not find S.B. Rather, they discovered marijuana plants and a marijuana grow operation in the previously locked room. They arrested Moore and secured a search warrant. When executing the warrant, they discovered more than 100 marijuana plants and equipment associated with a grow operation.
The State charged Moore with manufacture of a controlled substance. After a bench trial on stipulated evidence, the court found Moore guilty as charged.
EMERGENCY AID EXCEPTION
Moore argues that the police violated article 1, section 7 of the state constitution by invading his home and searching a locked room without authority of law. We agree.
"As a general rule, warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution."
Despite the protections against warrantless searches "'there are a few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement.'" The State bears the burden of proving an exception applies.
The emergency aid exception is one of these exceptions. "This exception emerges from the police's 'community caretaking function' and 'allows for the limited invasion of constitutionally protected privacy rights when it is necessary for police officers to render aid or assistance.'" Such an invasion is permitted only if the State can show that:
"(1) the police officer subjectively believed that someone likely needed assistance for health or safety concerns; (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would similarly believe that there was need for assistance;... (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place being searched.". . . (4) there is an imminent threat of substantial injury to persons or property; (5) state agents must believe a specific person or persons or property is in need of immediate help for health or safety reasons; and (6) the claimed emergency is not a mere pretext for an evidentiary search.
"[T]he failure to meet any factor is fatal to the lawfulness of the State's exercise of authority."
For purposes of a suppression hearing, the question is whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law. Unchallenged findings of fact are verities on appeal. We review de novo the trial court's conclusions of law.
The supreme court recently addressed the emergency aid exception in the context of a reported incident of domestic violence in State v. Schultz. Here, the trial court that heard Moore's case cited Schultz in support of its decision.
In Schultz, Sequim police officers received a report "from a resident of an apartment complex" about a loud argument between a male and female. When the officers arrived at the apartment, they heard a man and a woman yelling and "specifically overheard the man say that he wanted to be left alone and needed his space." When the officers knocked on the door, the woman, Patricia Sue Schultz, answered and denied that anyone else was in the apartment. The officers then told Schultz they heard a male voice. She called for Sam Robertson, later identified as the male whose voice the police had previously heard. He emerged from a nearby bedroom. Schultz then stepped back and the officers followed her inside.
After entering the apartment, the officers separated Schultz and Robertson. One officer spoke to Schultz inside the apartment and noticed that her "neck was red and blotchy." Both Schultz and Robertson independently told the officers that there ...