At 12:18 PM, Sergeant Tim Albright of the Elk Grove Police Department in California heard police dispatch broadcast a report of shots fired at a residence, with an unidentified male who had “possibly been shot twice,” and with suspects driving away in a “two-door Chevrolet product.” Sergeant Albright was the first officer to respond to the residence, arriving by 12:20 PM.
At the house, no car was in sight. Albright went to the front porch, where he saw a man with a wound on his head, and blood streaming onto his face and T-shirt. The man, Adrien Abeyta, was helping a female, Mia Zapata, who had been shot multiple times. Both Abeyta and Zapata were in distress, and unable to answer Albright’s questions. Abeyta was at least able to explain that a white male and a black male were involved, and had fled in a blue or black Chevy Tahoe.
Albright saw smudges and droplets of blood on the front door, including by the handle, and wondered if another victim – perhaps the unidentified male mentioned by dispatch who may have been shot twice – was still in the house. Albright had to ask Abeyta three times whether there was someone in the house. Each time, Abeyta paused as if in a daze. One time, Abeyta gave no answer. The second time, he said he didn’t think anyone was inside. The third time, he said no.
In the meantime, Zapata was screaming and repeatedly asking for water. Abeyta was also yelling and screaming for medical help. The sirens of fire trucks and police patrol cars were wailing. Albright wondered whether Abeyta was right about whether no one remained inside the house, but he was unable to see inside because the window blinds were closed, and there was too much noise to listen for sounds coming from inside. Albright decided he had to get inside the house to check it out for himself, but he had no time to get a warrant.
Albright asked Abeyta whether the keys Abeyta had were for the house, and explained he had to look inside the house for victims or suspects. Abeyta said yes, but refused to let Albright in. Albright warned him that officers would just have to kick the door down, and Abeyta finally unlocked the door. Albright and a team of officers announced their presence and went inside to look for bodies.
The officers cleared the downstairs and started upstairs. Officer Samuel Seo approached a locked bedroom door. He announced his presence, heard no response, and kicked the door in. Seo immediately smelled a strong odor of marijuana and saw a scale and quarter-size balls of marijuana. Once Seo and the other officers verified no one else was in the house, Seo told a detective about what he saw, and the detective obtained a search warrant. The search uncovered more marijuana, a marijuana plant, two semiautomatic pistols, a shotgun, a rifle and ammunition, over $9,000 in cash and evidence linking Albert Troyer to the fruits of the search.
Troyer challenged the officers’ actions, claiming that the warrantless search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the police had the right under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement to enter the house and the room. The Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing that the police had the right to enter the house, but not the room. The California Supreme Court granted the prosecution’s petition for review, and just issued its opinion this morning.
The primary goal of the Fourth Amendment is to protect the public from warrantless police intrusion into our homes. As a result, a search or seizure inside a home without a warrant is “presumptively unreasonable.” With the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment being “reasonableness,” certain exceptions to the warrant requirement have emerged.
One of these exceptions deals with “exigent circumstances,” which allows an officer to enter a home without a warrant “to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” The test is an objective one , looking at the facts known to the officers at the time, and deciding whether they had “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.”
The majority, led by Justice Baxter, found that the evidence “amply supported an objectively reasonable belief that one or more shooting victims could be inside the house.” The majority pointed to the facts that the dispatch report indicated that a male victim may have been shot twice and the police still had not located an individual matching that description, that Albright saw blood on the doorway signaling that a wounded person either went in or came out of the house, and that Abeyta’s answers about whether anyone was inside were inconsistent.
Acting Chief Justice Joyce Kennard was the lone dissenter, disagreeing with the majority’s slant of the facts. Kennard found Abeyta’s answers completely consistent – that no one else remained in the house. All reports indicated that the suspects had fled. The blood on the door was probably from Abeyta, who had been moving back and forth on the porch. And the report of a male being shot twice simply had the wrong sex and obviously referred to Zapata.
The majority dismissed Kennard’s analysis, finding that the officers merely needed an objectively reasonable basis to think someone needed aid inside the house, and had no responsibility to eliminate every other reasonable inference that could have been supported by the facts.
And so you ask yourself – what does this case have to do with companion animals? Well, the California Supreme Court placed Chung v. the People of California on hold pending its decision in Troyer. Chung is also an exigent circumstances case – but the injured occupants in Chung were companion animals.
The law on exigent circumstances is clear – officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury. The result in Troyer bodes well for upholding the officer’s actions in Chung based on the exigent circumstances exception. But the question is now whether that “injured occupant” can be a companion animal, with a side issue of whether the California Supreme Court will consider the animals in Chung more as occupants or mere property.