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Wisconsin high court makes decision regarding ‘community caretaker’ exception

Typically, a warrant is required for police to search a person’s home. There are some exceptions though where warrantless searches of homes are allowed. One of these exceptions is the “community caretaker” exception. This exception deals with actions police took not for law enforcement purposes but for caretaker purposes to protect and safeguard members of the public. Questions sometimes arise regarding whether a given police action falls under this exception.

Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court made a decision in a case involving this issue.

In 2012, police in the state had gone to a man’s home when looking into a possible beating. The victim of the alleged beating was the brother of the man, and had been found in a bloodied state in a residence in the area.

When police came to the man’s home, the man allowed them in. He said that he and his brother had fought.

When in the home, police spotted blood. They also spotted other things, including marijuana, a bong, a pipe and a grinder.

Police then asked to be allowed into a locked room in the home. The man refused. The police eventually opened the door using a key they found. Evidence of marijuana cultivation was discovered in the room.

A state appeals court found that the search of the locked room did not qualify for a warrantless search exception and that the search was invalid.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, in its recent decision, reached a different conclusion. It found that the police search of the locked room was done for the purpose of checking for injured individuals in the home, and that this fell under the community caretaker exception. Thus, it overturned the appeals court decision and ruled the search valid.

The dissent in this case argued that this ruling by the majority expands the community caretaker exception to too broad of levels.

Court decisions regarding when exceptions to the warrant requirement apply for home searches can be very impactful. They can affect what search conduct police can and can’t engage in, which in turn can have major impacts on evidence issues in cases, as police engaging in invalid search conduct can lead to a suppression of evidence that was found through the conduct. Thus, the decisions in these sorts of cases matter greatly.

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