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Community Caretaking Not a Justification for a Welfare Check

Thursday, February 4, 2016

By Larry E. Holtz, Esq.

Source: Holtz Learning Centers

Recently, in State v. Vargas (NJ 2013), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the community-caretaking doctrine does not authorize the police to conduct a warrantless entry and search of a home to check on the welfare of a resident in the absence of the resident's consent or an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency. According to the Court, “the community-caretaking doctrine is not a justification for the warrantless entry and search of a home in the absence of some form of an objectively reasonable emergency.”
THE CASE: Defendant Cesar Vargas lived in a second-floor apartment on East Park Avenue in Vineland. According to his landlord, Henry Olaya, Vargas “was a 'good tenant'--he kept his place clean and 'paid his rent on time.' ” Recently, however, Olaya became concerned when Vargas was late on his rent payment. “Olaya made several attempts to contact Vargas. However, Olaya received no response to knocks on Vargas's door or to voicemails left on Vargas's cell phone. Two tenants in the building told Olaya that they had not seen Vargas for either 'several days' or 'weeks.' The tenants noticed that a bag of trash had been sitting on Vargas's front porch, and, for 'several days' or perhaps a 'week,' Vargas's Jaguar convertible had not been moved.”
After two weeks of no contact with Vargas, Olaya noticed that “Vargas's Jaguar was parked beside the house, covered in pollen, its rear tires deflated. Moreover, Vargas's mailbox was full[.]” “Olaya knocked on Vargas's door and called his cell phone without any response. Olaya's concern about the unpaid rent now ripened into concern about his tenant's welfare.” Consequently, Olaya called the police. “Before doing so, however, Olaya did not try calling Vargas's emergency contact number or place of employment. Significantly, Olaya did not know details about Vargas's personal life or employment. He did not know the basic pattern of Vargas's 'comings and goings,' whether or for how long he vacationed, whether he took business trips, or whether he traveled out of town to meet with family.”
Three Vineland police officers were dispatched to the East Park Avenue address for a “welfare check.” Upon their arrival, the officers were advised by Olaya that he had been unable to contact Vargas for approximately two weeks. “The officers observed for themselves that Vargas's mailbox was full, his Jaguar was covered in dust, and the car's tires deflated.”
“No one answered when the officers knocked on Vargas's door. The officers then peered through a window but saw no one in the apartment.” Fearing for Vargas's safety, the officers entered his apartment. “Olaya unlocked the apartment door, and the officers began to search the premises for Vargas. The officers checked all the rooms of the apartment, as well as the closets, and found no one home and no signs of foul play. In the living room they saw a six- to eight-inch jar containing vegetation that appeared to be marijuana. Olaya, who had entered the apartment with the officers, opened kitchen cabinet drawers. Inside one drawer 'appeared to be two canning jars full of marijuana.' An officer standing nearby observed the drawer's contents, and the police then directed everyone to leave the apartment. The police later secured a warrant to search the apartment.” A subsequent search uncovered over $47,000 in cash; “a shotgun and rifle; ammunition; a clear plastic bag containing white powder; eight glass mason jars containing green vegetation; two ballistic vests; a digital scale; and clear plastic bags containing vegetation, seeds, and one white pill.”
THE LAW: In this appeal, the State argued that, under the community-caretaking doctrine, the entry by the police into Vargas's apartment to conduct a “welfare check” was reasonable. “According to the State, under the community-caretaking doctrine, the police did not need to believe that there was an emergency or that defendant, or the public, was faced with imminent harm.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, holding that “the warrantless entry and search in this case violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution.” Consequently, all evidence seized as a result of that search must be suppressed. According to the Court, “the community- caretaking doctrine is not a justification for the warrantless entry and search of a home in the absence of some form of an objectively reasonable emergency.”
The Court expressly rejected any notion that “the community-caretaking doctrine permits the warrantless entry into or search of a home in the absence of some form of exigent circumstances.” “Without the presence of consent or some species of exigent circumstances, the community-caretaking doctrine is not a basis for the warrantless entry into and search of a home.” The Court elaborated:
No one disputes that police officers acting in a community-caretaking capacity “provide 'a wide range of social services' outside of their traditional law enforcement and criminal investigatory roles.” * *
Police officers serving in a community-caretaking role are empowered to make a warrantless entry into a home under the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement. * * * Under the emergency-aid doctrine, a police officer can enter a home without a warrant if he has “an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury” and there is a “reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched.” * * * In other words, “if police officers 'possess an objectively reasonable basis to believe' that prompt action is needed to meet an imminent danger, then neither the Fourth Amendment nor Article I, Paragraph 7 demand that the officers 'delay potential lifesaving measures while critical and precious time is expended obtaining a warrant.' ”
Significantly, there has be no case from the United States Supreme Court that has even remotely suggested that the community-caretaking doctrine was intended as an independent basis for a warrantless entry and search of a home. “In this case, before the police officers could enter or search Vargas's home without a warrant they had to have 'an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency require[d]' immediate action to protect life or prevent serious injury.”
“Defendant Vargas lived in a rental unit owned by Olaya, who was unable to contact him at home or on his cell phone for approximately two weeks. During this period, Vargas made no rent payment. * * * Whatever legitimate worries Olaya had about Vargas's welfare before dialing 9-1-1, he did not attempt to call Vargas's emergency contact number or place of business or enter the apartment under the terms of the rental agreement. Indeed, Olaya did not know any of the personal details of the rhythms of Vargas's life, including whether and for how long he either vacationed, took business trips, or traveled to meet with family.”
“In that regard, this is unlike the case of a close family member whose housebound elderly relative is not responding to telephone calls and knocks on the door. Nor is this like the case of a diabetic or infirm neighbor who is not seen carrying out routine daily activities and who is not answering the door or the telephone. [Clearly, there are a] myriad [of] circumstances that might give rise to an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires immediate action for the safety or welfare of another. Suffice it to say, those objectively reasonable circumstances were not found to be present here.”
“Although the police officers entered Vargas's residence without a warrant out of their expressed concern for the tenant's safety, the State concedes that neither the emergency-aid nor the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement justified the entry or search.” Rather, Vargas's absence for a couple of weeks was more consistent with a person vacationing, traveling on business, or tending to a personal family matter.
“The community-caretaking doctrine is 'not a roving commission to conduct a nonconsensual search of a home in the absence of exigent circumstances.' ” In this case, “the police did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency threatening life or limb justified the warrantless entry into Vargas's apartment. As such, the seizure of evidence from Vargas's home violated the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution and must be suppressed.”

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