In the July 2019 case of People v. Rubio,[1] the California First District Court of Appeal held that a warrantless entry into a locked garage/apartment conversion by officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the officers reasonably believed that an injured person or a shooter might be inside.

Background

In October 2016, East Palo Alto Police Department Sergeant Clint Simmont received an alert notifying him of a shooting in a high-crime neighborhood. Simmont later testified that he had responded to more murders within a block of that location than anywhere else in East Palo Alto. The alert indicated two separate bursts of gunfire had occurred at a particular address. First, five rounds came from the edge of the garage driveway area of 2400 Gonzaga, then one minute later came six rounds at “the edge of the driveway, near the sidewalk.”

Sergeant Simmont and four other officers arrived near the location where the shots were fired, parking 60-70 feet from the edge of the driveway. Officers asked people in the area if they heard gunfire, and the people pointed to the residence at 2400 Gonzaga. Officers approached the house, and at the top of the driveway near the garage found a spent shell casing from what Simmont believed might have been a semiautomatic weapon. A man Simmont knew to be verbally antagonistic emerged through a wooden gate in a fence separating the front and back yards shouting obscenities, and then assumed a combative position. The officers arrested him and put him in a patrol car. An officer located two more spent casings behind the open gate the man had passed through.

Sergeant Simmont pounded loudly on the door by the side of the garage and announced police presence four or five times, but there was no response. Sergeant Simmont heard movement inside that sounded like someone barricading the door. The officers spoke to several people at the front door of the residence and asked if anyone in the house had been shot. The father of defendant Adan Rubio said he did not know if anyone had been shot. Sergeant Simmont testified that he asked for and received permission from Rubio’s father to search the house, which the father denied in later testimony. The officers and the father went inside. The father said that his son Adan Rubio was inside the garage. Sergeant Simmont asked for permission to search the garage, to which the father responded, “Sure.”

As the father was getting the garage key, Adan Rubio emerged from the garage and closed the door to the garage, which automatically locked behind him. He approached the officers with his hands in his pockets, yelling for them to shoot him. Sergeant Simmont repeatedly ordered defendant to show his hands. Rubio eventually took his hands out of his pockets and in the same motion threw a key ring into the kitchen sink. Officers arrested Rubio and placed him in a patrol car.

After getting the key Rubio had thrown into the kitchen sink, the officers found it did not open the door to the garage. Sergeant Simmont testified later that he did not know what was on the other side of the door and that he had no reason to believe anyone had been shot, but he “didn’t have anything to rule that out, either.” Sergeant Simmont and another officer kicked the door open and entered the garage. Sergeant Simmont observed that the garage was actually a converted apartment. The officers did not find anyone inside the apartment, but did find “an explosive device on a shelf” and an operable .45 semiautomatic pistol on the shelf in an open closet.

The officers cleared the house of all occupants to secure the scene, and later a search warrant was obtained. The officers reentered the residence and executed the warrant, finding additional firearms, ammunition, and “a clear, rock-like substance” in a shot glass.

The San Mateo County District Attorney filed a six-count felony information, charging Rubio with various firearm and controlled substance offenses. A trial court denied Rubio’s motion to suppress the evidence found in his apartment, citing the emergency aid doctrine of the community caretaking exception. Thereafter, Rubio entered a plea of no contest and was convicted by plea to possession of a controlled substance with a firearm (Health & Saf. Code section 12305). Rubio was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, subject to conditions including nine months in the county jail or a residential substance abuse treatment program. He appealed.

Discussion

The California First District Court of Appeal explained that warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively unreasonable.[2] However, because “‘police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving,’”[3] “warrantless searches are allowed when the circumstances make it reasonable, within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, to dispense with the warrant requirement.”[4] Rubio argued that the officers’ conduct here was not justified by any exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

The First District explained that in the California Supreme Court case People v. Ray,[5] police officers responded to a report that the door to an apartment had been open all day, and that the inside of the home was in “shambles.” Officers arrived on the scene and determined a “‘95 percent’ likelihood they had encountered a burglary or similar situation.” (Id. at p. 468) The officers knocked several times and announced their presence, but received no response. Concerned that they might find people inside either in need of aid or burglarizing the home, the officers entered the home to conduct a security check.

The lead opinion in Ray concluded that the exception to the warrant requirement for officers performing community caretaking functions applied. As the lead opinion explained, “‘the community caretaker exception is only invoked when the police are not engaged in crime-solving activities.’” (Id. at p. 471.) “Under the community caretaking exception, circumstances short of a perceived emergency may justify a warrantless entry.” (Id. at p. 473.) “‘[T]he defining characteristic of community caretaking functions is that they are totally unrelated to the criminal investigation duties of the police.’” (Id. at p. 471.) Moreover, if an entry into a home is justified by the caretaking exception, there is no bar to the seizure of contraband that is readily observed upon entry into the home. (Id. at pp. 471–472; People v. Stamper, 106 Cal.App.3d 301, 305 (1st Dist. 1980).) The Ray Court held that the officers’ concern justified entry to conduct a security check “‘to see if anyone inside might be injured, disabled, or unable to obtain help’ and to determine whether a burglary had been committed or was in progress.” (People v. Ray, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 468.) In Stamper, a case involving police responding to gunshots fired within a home, the First District held that “officers reasonably concluded that an injured person in need of prompt attention might be within the house. In such situations the Constitution does not require the delays of further investigation or warrant applications.” (People v. Stamper, supra, 106 Cal.App.3d at p. 306, italics in original.)

The First District here also found additional support for such reasoning in United States Supreme Court cases finding police officers’ entry to be reasonable under certain circumstances because “[t]he role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties.” (Brigham City v. Stuart (2006) 547 U.S. 398; see also Michigan v. Fisher (2009) 558 U.S. 45 (per curiam), quoting Brigham City.) In Ryburn v. Huff (2012) 565 U.S. 469 (per curiam), the United States Supreme Court, referring to Brigham City and other decisions, held that “[a] reasonable police officer could read these decisions to mean that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to enter a residence if the officer has a reasonable basis for concluding that there is an imminent threat of violence.” (Ryburn, at p. 474.)

Here, the First District explained that there was no suggestion that Sergeant Simmont or the other officers who entered the home were looking for contraband or doing anything other than trying to make sure that there was not an injured victim or someone with a weapon who was then threatening injury to others inside the residence. The First District explained that although Sergeant Simmont and the officers were not aware of a specific, known individual who might be in danger or might pose an imminent threat to others, “the California Supreme Court’s decisions in both Ray and Stamper establish that if the circumstances suggest that such a person may be inside a dwelling, police may reasonably enter to determine whether in fact such a person is present.”

The Court concluded that, under the approach required by these authorities, the officers’ forced entry into Rubio’s garage apartment was reasonable under the circumstances here: (1) there were shots fired from multiple locations in the driveway; (2) a verbally aggressive person exited the gate of the residence and assumed a combative stance; (3) Sergeant Simmont recognized that this person did not live at the residence; (4) spent shell casings were found outside the residence; (5) the shell casings appeared to lead to a door going into the garage; (6) when he knocked and announced his presence, Sergeant Simmont heard movement inside that sounded like someone barricading the door; (7) the sounds led officers to believe someone may have been held captive on the other side of the door; (8) Rubio behaved erratically and refused to show his hands; and (9) the neighborhood was known as a high crime area. The Court therefore concluded that officer actions fell within the emergency aid doctrine and the community caretaking exception applied. Moreover, if the police had failed to investigate in these circumstances, it would have constituted a failure to properly discharge their duties as law enforcement officers. Accordingly, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

In her dissent, Justice Tucher noted that the Fourth Amendment drew a “firm line at the entrance to the house,”[6] and that the physical entry of the home is the “chief evil”[7] against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed. Justice Tucher said the majority stretched the scope of the emergency aid doctrine to allow intrusion into the home “based on only an unparticularized suspicion that an injured person may be inside.”

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The First District Court of Appeal here discussed several state and federal supreme court precedents that previously have laid the foundation for the community caretaker exception, and the related emergency aid doctrine, in rendering its decision here. The Rubio case reaffirms these principles under the factual scenario encountered by the responding officers in this incident.  Exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement generally are interpreted by the courts in a narrow manner. Accordingly, the general rule remains to seek a warrant when time and circumstances permit in order to avoid civil liability exposure or potential exclusion of any evidence obtained without a warrant from a criminal prosecution.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact James R. Touchstone at (714) 446–1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

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[1] 2019 Cal. App. LEXIS 653 (1st Dist. July 18, 2019).

[2] People v. Romeo, 240 Cal.App.4th 931, 939 (1st Dist. 2015), quoting Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 585–586 (1980).

[3] Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 466 (2011).

[4] Id. at p. 462.

[5] 21 Cal.4th 464 (1999).

[6] People v. Bennett, 17 Cal.4th 373, 386 (1998), citing Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590 (1980).

[7] People v. Thompson, 38 Cal.4th 811, 817 (2006).