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The People v. Albert Troyer

February 22, 2011


Sacramento County Super. Ct. No. 07F06029 Ct.App. 3 C059889

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

"[T]he 'physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.' " (Payton v. New York (1980) 445 U.S. 573, 585.) Thus, "searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable." (Id. at p. 586.) "Nevertheless, because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness,' the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions." (Brigham City v. Stuart (2006) 547 U.S. 398, 403.) In particular, "law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury." (Ibid.)

In this case, both the trial court and the Court of Appeal found the record sufficient under the emergency aid exception to justify a warrantless entry by police into a residence to search for additional victims of a recent shooting. The Court of Appeal, however, reversed the judgment because it found the police erred in entering a locked upstairs bedroom, where marijuana, related paraphernalia, and firearms were found in plain view. Because the police did not need "ironclad proof of 'a likely serious, life-threatening' injury to invoke the emergency aid exception" to the warrant requirement in order to enter the bedroom but merely " 'an objectively reasonable basis for believing' that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger" (Michigan v. Fisher (2009) 558 U.S. ___, ___ [130 S.Ct. 546, 549] (per curiam)), we reverse the Court of Appeal.


This was the situation confronting Elk Grove Police Department Sergeant Tim Albright, a 15-year veteran, on June 6, 2007, according to the testimony elicited at the hearing on defendant's motion to suppress:

At 12:18 p.m., police dispatch broadcast a report of shots fired at 9253 Gem Crest Way in Elk Grove. An unidentified male had "possibly been shot twice," and the suspects were driving "a two-door Chevrolet product." Sergeant Albright, the first officer to respond, arrived at the scene at 12:20 p.m., but he was in plainclothes and an unmarked vehicle. The suspects' vehicle was nowhere in sight, so Albright approached the front porch of the residence, where a 40-year-old White male was administering first aid to a female victim (later identified as Mia Zapata) who had been shot multiple times. A Hispanic male, later identified as Adrien Abeyta, was also on the porch. He had a wound on the top of his head, and blood was streaming onto his face and T-shirt.

Zapata was in obvious distress and "an altered level of consciousness." She was not able to provide information to the officer. Albright turned to Abeyta to find out what had happened, but it was difficult to get information from him because he, too, was excited and agitated. Abeyta did say that two individuals were involved, a White male and a Black male, and that they had fled westbound in a blue or black two-door Chevrolet Tahoe.

Albright noticed there was blood on the front door--smudge marks and blood droplets in multiple areas, including "near the handle side of the door." This indicated to him that a bleeding victim had come into contact with that door "at some point," either by entering or exiting the house, so he asked Abeyta whether anyone was inside. Abeyta stared at the officer for 15 or 20 seconds but did not respond. When Albright repeated the question, Abeyta stared at him again but eventually said that he "did not think so." Needing clarification, Albright asked the question for a third time. Abeyta took a "long" pause to stare at the officer and then said "no."

The situation was "[v]ery chaotic." Zapata was screaming and asking for water over and over, and Albright was attempting to direct the citizen in providing first aid. Abeyta, too, was in an excitable state and was yelling and screaming for medical personnel. Sirens announced the arrival of both fire trucks and patrol vehicles. In the midst of this, Albright was concerned that Abeyta's eventual response that no one was inside the house was untruthful or, because of his head injury, inaccurate, and therefore was worried that there might be additional victims--or even additional suspects--inside. But the window blinds were closed, and, with all the noise, Albright could not focus on whether there were any sounds coming from inside the residence. Under these circumstances, Albright decided that he had a responsibility to verify whether there were additional victims or suspects in the house.

Albright asked Abeyta whether the keys attached to a lanyard in his hand were to the residence and explained the urgency in locating potential victims or suspects inside. Abeyta replied that the keys were to the residence, but declined to give permission to enter the house. When Albright warned him that the officers would otherwise have to kick in the door, Abeyta unlocked it. After announcing their presence (and hearing no response), a team of uniformed peace officers entered the house to look for victims and suspects. After clearing the downstairs, the officers headed upstairs, continuing to look in places where a body could be.

Officer Samuel Seo approached a locked bedroom door. He announced his presence outside the door and, hearing no response, kicked the door open. Seo immediately smelled a strong odor of marijuana and observed an electronic scale and quarter-size balls of the drug. After verifying there was no one in the house, Seo relayed his observations to Detective Mark Bearor, who prepared an affidavit for a search warrant. The warranted search uncovered additional marijuana; a live marijuana plant; two semiautomatic pistols, a shotgun, a Winchester rifle, and ammunition; over $9,000 in cash; and indicia linking defendant Albert Troyer to the residence.

The parties stipulated that defendant, who was not home at the time of the search, had standing to challenge the police entry into and search of the residence. Following the hearing, the superior court denied the motion to suppress. Defendant then pleaded no contest to unlawful possession of marijuana for sale and unauthorized cultivation of marijuana, and admitted arming enhancements for both offenses. (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 11358, 11359; Pen. Code, § 12022, subd. (a)(1).) The court suspended imposition of sentence and placed defendant on probation for five years on the condition he serve one year in jail.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeal reversed and directed the trial court to enter an order granting the motion to suppress. The majority reasoned that although the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement justified the initial entry into the residence, it did not justify entry into the locked upstairs bedroom because "there were insufficient facts for the officers to reasonably believe there was somebody inside the locked upstairs bedroom who was seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury." The majority also found that the entry could not be justified as a protective sweep under Maryland v. Buie (1990) 494 U.S. 325, in that there were insufficient facts to justify a reasonable belief "there were dangerous people inside the house, let alone inside the locked upstairs bedroom." Justice Nicholson, dissenting, argued that the justification for the initial entry into the locked house under the emergency aid exception also justified entry into the locked bedroom and cautioned: "That, in hindsight, no other victim was found in the residence may make it more comfortable to find a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but it did not make the search less reasonable."

We granted the People's petition for review.


In California, issues relating to the suppression of evidence derived from governmental searches and seizures are reviewed under federal constitutional standards. (People v. Rogers (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1136, 1156, fn. 8.) Defendant contends that the police entry into his home was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Because a warrantless entry into a home is presumptively unreasonable, the government bears the burden of establishing that exigent circumstances or another exception to the warrant requirement justified the entry. (Rogers, at p. 1156.)

The parties agree that "police may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury." (Brigham City v. Stuart, supra, 547 U.S. at p. 400.) " 'The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.' " (Mincey v. Arizona (1978) 437 U.S. 385, 392.) " ' "There is no ready litmus test for determining whether such circumstances exist, and in each case the claim of an extraordinary situation must be measured by the facts known to the officers." ' " (People v. Panah (2005) 35 Cal.4th 395, 465.) On appeal, we uphold the trial court's factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence, but review independently its determination that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment. (People v. Rogers, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 1157.)

The " 'emergency aid exception' " to the warrant requirement "does not depend on the officers' subjective intent or the seriousness of any crime they are investigating when the emergency arises." (Michigan v. Fisher, supra, 558 U.S. at p. ___ [130 S.Ct. at p. 548].) Rather, the exception "requires only 'an objectively reasonable basis for believing' [citation] that 'a person within [the house] is in need of immediate aid.' " (Ibid.) "We are to approach the Fourth Amendment . . . with at least some measure of pragmatism. If there is a grave public need for the police to take preventive action, the Constitution may impose limits, but it will not bar the way." (Mora v. City of Gaithersburg (4th Cir. 2008) 519 F.3d 216, 222.)

Defendant would impose one further requirement. In his view, the objectively reasonable basis for a warrantless entry under the emergency aid exception must be established by proof amounting to "probable cause," which is defined as " 'a reasonable ground for belief of guilt' " that is "particularized with respect to the person to be searched or seized." (Maryland v. Pringle (2003) 540 U.S. 366, 371.) Defendant cites no high court authority grafting such a standard onto the emergency aid exception. Nor does the importation of a concept governing police officers "engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime" (Arizona v. Evans (1995) 514 U.S. 1, 15) make sense under the emergency aid exception, where the police must make split-second decisions as to whether someone is in need of immediate aid, not whether someone could be arrested for a crime. (People v. Ray (1999) 21 Cal.4th 464, 475 (lead opn. of Brown, J.) [finding the probable cause standard is "inappropriate" in assessing the police function of aiding persons in need of assistance]; accord, Ortiz v. State (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 2009) 24 So.3d 596, 606 (conc. opn. of Torpy, J.) ["When a search is non-criminal in purpose, . . . criminal concepts are not helpful in making the determination of reasonableness"]; State v. Carlson (Iowa 1996) 548 N.W.2d 138, 142.) As then Circuit Judge Warren Burger explained, "the business of policemen and firemen is to act, not to speculate or meditate on whether the report is correct. People could well die in emergencies if police tried to act with the calm deliberation associated with the judicial process." (Wayne v. United States (D.C. Cir. 1963) 318 F.2d 205, 212 (conc. opn. of Burger, J.), quoted in Tamborino v. Superior Court (1986) 41 Cal.3d 919, 924, fn. 2.)

Thus, when we balance the nature of the intrusion on an individual's privacy against the promotion of legitimate governmental interests in order to determine the reasonableness of a search in the circumstances of an emergency (Delaware v. Prouse (1979) 440 U.S. 648, 654), we must be mindful of what is at stake. The possibility that immediate police action will prevent injury or death outweighs the affront to privacy when police enter the home under the reasonable but mistaken belief that an emergency exists. (U.S. v. Snipe (9th Cir. 2008) 515 F.3d 947, 954.) Indeed, the high court has already held that as to a " 'protective sweep' "--an analogous circumstance in which police search a residence to locate "anyone inside who might endanger their safety" (People v. Celis (2004) 33 Cal.4th 667, 671, citing Maryland v. Buie, supra, 494 U.S. 325)--"the probable cause standard did not apply." (Celis, at p. 677.)

Accordingly, some courts have held that any probable cause requirement is automatically satisfied whenever there is an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is in need of emergency aid. (E.g., U.S. v. Snipe, supra, 515 F.3d at p. 952; U.S. v. Holloway (11th Cir. 2002) 290 F.3d 1331, 1338; Koch v. Brattleboro (2d Cir. 2002) 287 F.3d 162, 169; McNeil v. City of Easton (E.D.Pa. 2010) 694 F.Supp.2d 375, 388-389; see also State v. Meeks (Tenn. 2008) 262 S.W.3d 710, 726, fn. 31.) Other courts have reasoned that the concept of probable cause simply has no role in the analysis of a warrantless entry into a residence under the emergency aid exception. (E.g., Wofford v. State (Ark. 1997) 952 S.W.2d 646, 652; People v. Allison (Colo. 2004) 86 P.3d 421, 427; State v. Fausel (Conn. 2010) 993 A.2d 455, 461-462; State v. Carlson, supra, 548 N.W.2d at p. 142; State v. Alexander (Md.Ct.Spec.App. 1998) 721 A.2d 275, 286; Hannon v. State (Nev. 2009) 207 P.3d 344, 346; Duquette v. Godbout (R.I. 1984) 471 A.2d 1359, 1362; State v. Deneui (S.D. 2009) 775 N.W.2d 221, 230; State v. Comer (Utah 2002) 51 P.3d 55, 62; see also Armijo v. Peterson (10th Cir. 2010) 601 F.3d 1065, 1075; U.S. v. Quezada (8th Cir. 2006) 448 F.3d 1005, 1007.) We decline to resolve here what appears to be a debate over semantics. Under either approach, and in light of the fact that "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness,' " our task is to determine whether there was an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant was seriously injured or threatened with such injury. (Brigham City v. Stuart, supra, 547 U.S. at p. 403; cf. Graham v. Connor (1989) 490 U.S. 386, 397 [claim of excessive force depends on "whether the officers' actions are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them"]; People v. Jenkins (2000) 22 Cal.4th 900, 974 [where the state seeks to justify a warrantless search by relying upon the consent of a third party, "the state may carry its burden by demonstrating that it was objectively reasonable for the searching officer to believe that the person giving consent had authority to do so"].)

The record amply supported an objectively reasonable belief that one or more shooting victims could be inside the house. Police dispatch stated that shots had just been fired "at" 9253 Gem Crest Way, and, indeed, Sergeant Albright's observations of the blood at the scene indicated that a shooting had occurred "mere feet [from] or within the doorway area." Bloodstains on the door signaled that a bleeding victim had come into contact with the door, either by entering or by exiting the residence. (See People v. Rodriguez (N.Y.App.Div. 2010) 907 N.Y.S.2d 294, 301 [blood on the landing in front of the apartment and on the door constituted "some reasonable basis . . . to associate the emergency with the inside of apartment 3L"].)

Moreover, the original dispatch report stated that a male victim had "possibly been shot twice"--and no such victim had yet been located. Sergeant Albright harbored "concern" about Abeyta, who had suffered a head injury and was bleeding, but the officer never stated that he observed any gunshot wounds on Abeyta or that he had concluded Abeyta must have been the man described in the dispatch report. In any event, a concern that Abeyta might have suffered a gunshot wound did not foreclose the reasonable possibility that the male victim described in the original dispatch was still at large. (Causey v. City of Bay City (6th Cir. 2006) 442 F.3d 524, 530 [despite the plaintiffs' assurances that no one was injured, it was " 'equally plausible and not unreasonable' " for the officers to infer that the plaintiffs were concealing an injured victim or were being intimidated by an unseen attacker]; U.S. v. Leveringston (8th Cir. 2005) 397 F.3d 1112, 1117 [noting that while blood on the defendant's shirt could have been his own, a reasonable officer could also have inferred that another party had been injured after some sort of struggle with the defendant]; see generally Michigan v. Fisher, supra, 558 U.S. at p. ___ [130 S.Ct. at p. 549] ["the test, as we have said, is not what [the officer] believed, but whether there was 'an objectively reasonable basis for believing' that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger"].)

Sergeant Albright asked Abeyta whether there was anyone inside the residence, but Abeyta's inconsistent answers raised serious concerns about his ability to give accurate and reliable responses. (People v. Poulson (1998) 69 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1, 6; State v. Carlson, supra, 548 N.W.2d at p. 143 ["The situation clearly remained sufficiently ambiguous to warrant further inquiry"]; State v. Frankel (N.J. 2004) 847 A.2d 561, 574 ["The responding police officer is not required to accept blindly the explanation for the 9-1-1 call offered by the resident answering the door"]; People v. Rodriguez, supra, 907 N.Y.S.2d at pp. 298-299; see generally U.S. v. Russell (9th Cir. 2006) 436 F.3d 1086, 1090 ["Given the substantial confusion and conflicting information, the police were justified in searching the house in order to determine whether there were other injured persons"].) The first time Albright asked whether anyone was inside the house, Abeyta just stared at Albright for 15 to 20 seconds and failed to respond. The second time, Abeyta continued to stare at the officer and eventually said he "did not think so." The third time, Abeyta paused for a "long" time, stared at the officer, and then said "no." Because the window blinds were closed, Albright could not peek inside to verify whether Abeyta's final answer was the correct one, nor, given the chaos at the scene, could he hear whether any sounds were coming from inside the residence. Under these circumstances, and inasmuch as Albright did not know who lived at the residence or who had been the aggressor, an objectively reasonable basis existed to enter the residence to search for additional victims.

The police entry here was no less justifiable than the police re-entry into the apartment in Tamborino v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.3d 919 (Tamborino). In Tamborino, police responded to a reported robbery at a particular address, and a neighbor confirmed that an injured person was inside the apartment. After receiving no response to his loud knock and announcement of his presence, the officer kicked in the door and found Tamborino, who seemed to be bleeding from the right side of his face, with "quite a bit of blood on his head, neck and hands." (Id. at p. 922.) The officer, unsure whether Tamborino was a suspect or a victim, brought Tamborino out of the apartment and handcuffed him. The officer immediately reentered the apartment, based on his concern that there might be other injured persons inside, without even asking Tamborino whether anyone else was there. As he walked through the apartment, the officer found cocaine residue, marijuana, and some narcotics paraphernalia in plain view. (Ibid.)

In rejecting a challenge to the officer's re-entry into the apartment, we explained that "the observation of Tamborino, wounded and bleeding, coupled with the earlier report of a robbery, constituted 'articulable facts' that reasonably could have led the officer to decide that an immediate, brief search of the apartment was warranted to determine whether additional persons were present at the crime scene. Officer Klein had no prior information indicating that only one victim was involved in the robbery, and in light of the situation he confronted, ordinary, routine common sense and a reasonable concern for human life justified him in conducting a walk-through search truly limited in scope to determining the presence of other victims." (Tamborino, supra, 41 Cal.3d at p. 923.) Invoking the general rule set forth in Mincey v. Arizona, supra, 437 U.S. at page 392, that " 'when the police come upon the scene of a homicide they may make a prompt warrantless search of the area to see if there are other victims or if a killer is still on the premises,' " we concluded that "comparable principles would govern a search of the scene of a robbery involving a wounded victim" and, thus, that "the discovery of one wounded victim afforded reasonable cause to enter and briefly search for additional victims" in that case. (Tamborino, supra, 41 Cal.3d at p. 924; see People v. Hill (1974) 12 Cal.3d 731, 755 ["Although only one casualty had thus far been reported, others may have been injured and may have been abandoned on the premises"; therefore, "it was reasonable for the officers to believe that the shooting may have resulted in other casualties in addition to that reported to the police and that an immediate entry was necessary to render aid to anyone in distress"], overruled on other grounds in People v. DeVaughn (1977) 18 Cal.3d 889, 896, fn. 5; see generally 3 LaFave, Search and Seizure (4th ed. 2004) § 6.6(a), p. 457 ["courts have upheld entry to search for possible victims in premises where shots have been fired"].)

The out-of-state cases on which defendant relies, which rejected application of the emergency aid exception in the particular circumstances presented, are ...

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