WA: Community caretaking function was a pretext to search for evidence, and search is suppressed

The warrantless search of defendant’s home was pretextual under the community caretaking function when there was no justification for it. The court also declines to adopt a “dead body rule.” State v. Boisselle, 2019 Wash. LEXIS 579 (Sept. 12, 2019):

¶36 Taken together, these facts demonstrate that the officers were suspicious, if not convinced, that a crime had taken place. Because of the officers’ significant suspicions, the search of Boisselle’s home was necessarily associated with the detection and investigation of criminal activity. See United States v. Williams, 354 F.3d 497, 508 (6th Cir. 2003) (“The community caretaking function of the police cannot apply where, as here, there is significant suspicion of criminal activity.”). While the officers purportedly entered Boisselle’s home to render aid or assistance, the officers were not solely motivated by a perceived need to provide immediate aid. Indeed, the trial court found that the officers “were not able to confirm an immediate emergency existed.” CP at 358. Instead, the officers sought to perform their official duties to uncover whether a crime had taken place and whether a crime victim was located inside Boisselle’s home. When officers act to uncover criminal activity, their actions are of the very type that article I, section 7’s warrant requirement is directed. “It is well settled that in order to search for evidence of a crime, police must have probable cause that a crime has been committed.” People v. Davis, 442 Mich. 1, 12, 497 N.W.2d 910 (1993).

¶37 Although the trial court concluded that the officers’ warrantless search of Boisselle’s home was not pretextual, we hold that the trial court’s findings of fact do not support such a conclusion. Because the officers had significant suspicions of criminal activity, the officers were conducting a criminal investigation, and there was no present emergency, it was objectively unreasonable for the officers to conduct a warrantless search of Boisselle’s home. Consequently, it appears that the officers used the emergency aid community caretaking function as a mere pretense for an evidentiary search. Accordingly, the officers’ warrantless search of Boisselle’s home was pretextual and did not fall under the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception. Thus, the trial court’s findings of fact do not support its conclusions of law, and the trial court erred in denying Boisselle’s motion to suppress.

¶38 Importantly, we note that our holding does not prevent law enforcement from conducting a warrantless search of a home for purposes of a criminal investigation when exigent circumstances are present. …

III. We Reject the State’s Proposed “Dead Body” Rule

¶39 The State asks this court to adopt a new rule permitting law enforcement officers to make warrantless entries into homes under the community caretaking exception in order to recover decomposing bodies. Specifically, the State suggests:

Under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement, if officers have a sincere and well-founded or reasonable concern that unattended human remains are present in a place, and that there is probable cause to associate that concern with that place, then the officers may make a limited sweep of that place to verify or dispel that concern.

Suppl. Br. of Resp’t at 7. We decline to adopt such a rule.

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