Most people know that the protections given by the U.S. Constitution keep people free from warrantless searches and seizures. Generally, warrantless searches or seizures are illegal. Any evidence found as a result of an illegal search is inadmissible in court.
What some people do not understand, however, is that there are some exceptions to this general rule.
The Court of Appeals recently released an opinion explaining one of these exceptions. Because these exceptions give police officers more power, they are important for every Washingtonian to understand.
The facts of the case are relatively simple. Spokane police responded to call about a domestic disturbance at an apartment complex that alleged that a male had hit a female victim. When they arrived, no one was outside of the apartment, but they could hear movement inside. When no one answered the door, officers obtained a key and opened the door to perform a welfare check.
At this point, some of the people inside the apartment exited. The defendant here did not, but remained inside instead. Officers asked him for identification, and he provided a known alias. Police dispatchers identified that there were three outstanding warrants for his arrest. He was placed under arrest and transported to a detention facility. During intake procedures, a deputy found two bags of methamphetamine in his clothing.
Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress all of the evidence because he was subjected to an unlawful seizure while questioned by police during their welfare check. Although the trial court found that there had been a seizure of the defendant's person, it was justified by what is known as an exigent circumstance, mainly the possible domestic violence at the apartment. The defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled substance. Exigent circumstances are those circumstances where public policy - protecting civilians, police officers, evidence, etc. - dictates the need for warrantless searches.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the evidence should have been suppressed. The Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the trial court properly applied the exigent circumstances exception.
Police officers may stop a witness under exigent circumstances when they can show three things. First, the officer must have a reasonable belief that a crime involving danger or injury to a person has occurred.
Second, the officer must have a reasonable belief that the witness has knowledge of the crime. Third, the action must be necessary to obtain or verify the witness's identification or obtain their account of the crime. In essence, the purpose of such a stop is to protect evidence of the crime that the police are investigating.
Here, the defendant was approached by police to investigate the domestic disturbance call, which included allegations of violence towards the victim. Second, officers had a belief that the defendant knew about the alleged domestic disturbance. Finally, they used the warrant check to confirm his identity. Such a stop is not unconstitutional.
If you have been charged with a crime in and around Seattle, you need an experienced attorney who can protect your rights. Attorney Steve Karimi has decades of experience as a prosecutor and defense attorney throughout the Seattle area. Contact him today for a free consultation.