In the recent appellate division case of State v. Witczak, 421 N.J. Super. 180 (App. Div. 2011), the court clarified what is known as the “community caretaking” exception to the requirement that police obtain a warrant before searching a person’s home. Here are the facts from the case:
On May 9, 2009, at approximately 9:43 p.m., Officer James Sztukowski received a call concerning an alleged aggravated assault involving a gun. He responded to the call and located the alleged victim a couple of blocks from the scene of the assault. The officer learned from the victim that she had worked in defendant’s single-family home as a nurse and cared for defendant’s very sick bedridden mother. She was unable to assist his mother from a bed on the first floor to the bathroom and yelled up to defendant on the third floor for assistance. Defendant did not respond, the victim walked upstairs to the door leading to the third floor, opened it, and observed defendant point a gun at her. The victim then ran out of the house and called the police. Officer Sztukowski remained with the victim, he testified that eight other officers responded to defendant’s house, and he radioed to those officers what the victim told him.
Officer Anthony D’Onofrio was dispatched to the home. When he arrived, Officer D’Onofrio observed defendant through a third-floor window and requested that defendant exit the home. Defendant exited, raised his hands above his head, and stated there was a gun upstairs. Officer D’Onofrio arrested defendant, handcuffed him, and read to him his Miranda warnings. Defendant’s bedridden mother remained in the house on the first floor. No one else occupied the home.
At this point, defendant was in custody, his mother occupied a bed on the first floor, approximately eight police cars and officers surrounded the house, and the victim was safe with Officer Sztukowski two blocks away. Officer D’Onofrio then entered defendant’s house for the sole purpose of retrieving the gun on the third floor without obtaining a search warrant or consent from defendant or his mother. Officer D’Onofrio admitted that when he entered the house there was no emergency because the victim was safe.
The trial court had originally denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the gun, reasoning that under the community caretaking exception the police had the right to enter the home without a warrant in order to secure the gun, which would be a threat to the public. But the Appellate Division reversed:
Here, we find the facts to be insufficient to establish as objectively reasonable the claimed exercise of the police caretaking function. Officer D’Onofrio arrested defendant and entered the home to retrieve the gun. When the officer walked into the home, it was surrounded by up to eight officers, defendant was in custody, the victim was safe two blocks away, and defendant’s bedridden mother was three floors away from the location of the gun. Officer D’Onofrio did not enter the home to ensure the safety and welfare of the bedridden woman. Even though the officer knew that defendant’s mother was in the house, he did not speak to her. Once defendant was in custody and the victim was safely secured, there no longer existed any emergency. Under these facts, we are unable to say that the purported community caretaker responsibility [was] a real one, and not a pretext to conduct an otherwise unlawful warrantless search.
In other words, the officer entered the home to find evidence that was relevant to the criminal case against the defendant. He should have obtained a warrant for the purpose. If he was entering the home for a reason not related to the criminal case – for example, if there were children in the house who could have hurt themselves with the gun before the office had time to get a warrant – then the office would have a valid reason to perform the warrantless search under the community caretaker exception.