Thursday, March 12, 2020

People v. Smith (Cal. Ct. App. - March 12, 2020)

I don't know.  This one seems a closer question to me than it appears to be to Justice Benke and the rest of the panel.

Let's see where you fall on this spectrum.

You're a police officer.  A concerned citizen calls you (probably, calls the dispatcher, who calls you) and says that there's an unoccupied car that's been running in the driveway of a residence for around half an hour.  You respond to the call and meet the citizen there.  Yep, there's an unoccupied car, its engine still running.  The windows of the car are up and foggy.  Its headlights are on.  You find out it's a rental car (for whatever that's worth).  The driver's nowhere to be found.

The driveway leads to a house.  You can't hear anyone in the home.  You ring the doorbell to the house several times, and you can hear the doorbell ring, but no one answers.  You also knock on the door and, again, no one answers.

There are your facts.

Here's the question:  What's up?  What do you think?  Why is there an unoccupied running vehicle in the driveway and no one answering at the residence?

The are lots of possibilities, of course.  Some are innocuous.  Maybe the owner just really likes a warm car in the winter (unlikely to be necessary down here in Southern California, but possible).  Maybe the owner just forgot to turn it off, went inside, and fell asleep.  Maybe the owner started the car and then inexplicably decided to walk to the grocery store.  Lots of possibilities over which we need shed little concern.

But other possibilities involve danger.  Maybe the owner had a heart attack, staggered inside the residence, and is unconscious.  Maybe the owner got mugged (or kidnapped).  Maybe there's some other type of foul play involved.

As a police officer -- or even as a concerned citizen -- you have to ask yourself:  "Based on what I know, which admittedly isn't much, what's the probability that there's someone inside the house who's in distress and needs some critical help."

You know as much as the officer here did.  What are the odds?  Fifty percent that there's someone in the house who needs help?  Ten percent?  Eighty percent?  Yes, yes, I know:  You can't be sure.  But what are the odds?  They're clearly not zero, and they're clearly not a hundred.  What do you think?

Here's what the Court of Appeal says:

"Similarly here, absolutely no evidence supported a conclusion that anything was amiss inside the residence."

That's pretty darn categorical.  "Absolutely no evidence" at all?!  Not to me.  The evidence that existed certainly suggested at least a chance that there was someone in the house that needed help.  A heart attack.  A drug overdose.  Something that made the person make the very, very unusual decision to leave his car running and unoccupied for a half hour.  That's unusual.  So when the Court of Appeal says there are "no facts that reasonably supported [the officer's] concern that someone inside the residence might be suffering from a medical emergency," that just sounds wrong to me.  There were surely no facts that proved that someone was in a crisis in the house.  But even from the mere facts recited in the opinion, those facts created (I think) a legitimate concern.  Concern based on real facts.

So does the community caretaking, or emergency aid, or some other exception to the warrant requirement apply on these facts?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Reasonable minds might well disagree as to both (1) how much of a concern suffices to create an exception to the warrant requirement, as well as (2) whether that standard, whatever it is, was satisfied here.

But at least for me, I think that the circumstances here were sufficiently unusual -- and in a way that I could easily imagine would result in a person in distress being in the home -- to create at least a non-trivial (i.e., real) risk that the officers would enter the home with a belief that there was a person therein who needed help.  Maybe you suppress any evidence therein regardless.  Maybe not.

But to say that the facts described above entail "absolutely no evidence [that] supported a conclusion that anything was amiss inside the residence?"  Nah.  Not for me.  There's some evidence for sure, and the only issue is whether it's enough to vitiate the need for a warrant.

So, for me, a much closer case than it is for the Court of Appeal.