PA: Emergency aid entry into home doesn’t permit reentry for accurate recordkeeping

A warrantless entry into a house under the emergency aid exception does not permit a reentry for administrative tasks. Accurate record keeping can’t be a justification for a warrantless entry. Commonwealth v. Wilmer, 2018 Pa. LEXIS 4917 (Sep. 21, 2018) (dissent):

Absent a recognized exception, under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution it is axiomatic that a law enforcement officer may not make a warrantless entry into a private dwelling. One such exception to the warrant requirement is the “emergency aid exception,” which this Court has characterized as belonging to a broader group of exceptions justified by the “community caretaking doctrine.” Commonwealth v. Livingstone, 174 A.3d 609, 627 (Pa. 2017). Pursuant to the community caretaking doctrine, certain warrantless actions of police officers do not offend constitutional principles because they are motivated by a “desire to render aid or assistance, rather than the investigation of criminal activity.” Id. at 627. In this discretionary appeal, we consider whether a police officer who properly entered a residence to render emergency aid could, after the emergency had passed, thereafter reenter the dwelling to perform administrative tasks in follow-up to the emergency entrance. For the following reasons, we conclude that the emergency aid exception did not permit reentry after the emergency had dissipated.

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As such, these cases do not establish any constitutional basis for Trooper Smolleck to reenter the sorority house. We likewise reject the Commonwealth’s attempt to justify Trooper Smolleck’s reentry by way of analogy to an inventory search of an impounded vehicle. See Commonwealth’s Brief at 44. Inventory searches, the Commonwealth states, are performed to protect both the property owners from disappearances of personal property in the vehicle while it is impounded and the police from claims of lost or stolen property while the vehicle is in police possession. Id. at 45 (citing Lagenella, 83 A.3d at 102-03). According to the Commonwealth, Lagenella “recognizes the importance of police recordkeeping (a community caretaking action) for potential property claims.” Id.

We reject any suggestion that the need for accurate police recordkeeping in connection with potential property claims justifies the entry into a private residence. Warrantless inventory searches are permitted because a private citizen’s property is temporarily in the possession of the police, a circumstance that generates legitimate concerns by both parties. No similar concerns arise in the present context, however, as the police did not seize the sorority house. Instead, the Troopers merely temporarily invaded the private dwelling to obviate an emergency situation, and the accuracy of police recordkeeping in this circumstance is of no constitutional moment.

As our above analysis reflects, once the emergency that permitted the Troopers’ initial entry ceased, their right of entry in the sorority house under the emergency aid exception also ceased. As a result, their actions from that point forward must be evaluated under traditional Fourth Amendment principles, Livingstone, 174 A.3d at 637, and Trooper Smolleck thus could not reenter the sorority house without a warrant or some other basis for claiming an entitlement to a different exception to the warrant requirement. Because no other exception to the warrant requirement applied to permit his reentry, Trooper Smolleck did not observe the glass marijuana bong and pipe in the sorority house from a lawful vantage point, Commonwealth v. Petroll, 738 A.2d 993, 999 (Pa. 1999), and accordingly, the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment did not justify his warrantless seizure of those items. The trial court’s denial of Wilmer’s suppression motion was therefore error, as was the Superior Court’s affirmance of that denial.

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