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Domestic Violence and the Home in Washington State (PART 2)

In part 1, we discussed what is required for law enforcement to make a warrantless entry into the home. The state must prove each of the following elements of the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement:

  1.  The police officer subjectively believed that someone likely needed assistance for health or safety concerns;
  2.  A reasonable person in the same situation would similarly believe that there was need for assistance;
  3.  There was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place being searched;
  4.  There is an imminent threat of substantial injury to persons or property;
  5.  State agents must believe a specific person or persons or property are in need of immediate help for health or safety reasons
  6.  The claimed emergency is not a mere pretext for an evidentiary search.


Schultz, 170 Wash.2d at 754; id. at 760 n. 5 (“failure to meet any factor is fatal”). Such constitutional requirements would make it difficult for Washington state to justify a program such as invasive routine inspections such as that in New York. Such monitoring is questionable.

Now we turn to the scope of the warrantless entry under the “emergency aid” exception to the warrant requirement.

Schultz explained the emergency aid exception contemplates a “limited invasion” “when it is necessary for police officers to render aid or assistance.” Schultz, 179 Wash.2d at 754 (emphasis added). This is a narrow exception. Ferguson writes “[o]nce the exigency justifying the initial entry has terminated, the police must obtain a warrant for the further search of the premises.” FERGUSON, 12 WASH. PRAC., CRIMINAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE, §2728 (3d ed.).

In State v. Schroeder, 109 Wash.App. 30 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001), police officers responded to Schroeder’s home after she called 911 about a shooting in her home. Upon arrival, Schroeder directed the officers to a bedroom where her boyfriend was lying face down on the floor with a pistol in his hand. He shot himself, but was still alive. Medics arrived but were unable to save the boyfriend’s life. Schroeder, 109 Wash.App. at 34.

Although Schultz was decided over ten years later, it is likely the warrantless entry in Schroeder would satisfy the elements of the emergency aid exception announced in Schultz. But the analysis does not end at the entry. It must be determined whether the officers exceed the scope of the emergency aid exception.

In Schroeder, after the boyfriend’s death, the officers then searched the deceased boyfriend and bedroom for identification. Their search included checking on top of dressers and through papers scattered about. The officers’ search then moved to the kitchen and an adjacent hallway. Over a pound of meth was eventually discovered. Id. at 35-36.

The Court of Appeals concluded evidence should have been suppressed and remanded the case for dismissal with prejudice. It held the search exceeded the permissible scope of a community caretaking function. “[T]he exigency that justified the BPD officers’ entry into Schroeder’s house ended when [her boyfriend] died.” Id. at 45. The Court of Appeals looked to State v. Kinzy where the Washington Supreme Court stated:

Once the [community caretaking function] exception does apply, police may conduct a noncriminal investigation so long as it is necessary and strictly relevant to performance of the community caretaking function. The noncriminal investigation must end when reasons for initiating an encounter have been fully dispelled.

Id. at 43 (quoting State v. Kinzy, 141 Wash.2d 373, 395, 5 P.3d 668 (2000)) (emphasis added). The Court of Appeals also made clear the 911 call for help did not diminish Schroeder’s expectation of privacy. See Schroeder, 109 Wash.App. at 41 (citing and quoting Thompson v. Louisiana, supra (holding as unreasonable warrantless search of house following entry in response to defendant’s call for help)).

Schroeder shows that once an entry is justified under the emergency aid exception – that does not give law enforcement authority of law to conduct an unfettered investigation in the home.

The entry must be strictly tied to addressing a true emergency and nothing more. If the actions of law enforcement go beyond community care taking that addresses a true emergency (i.e. fighting a fire, providing emergency medical aid), then the continued presence of law enforcement is not lawful.

Routinely law enforcement officers enter the home due to “domestic violence.” They then enter the home without a warrant when there is no imminent threat or emergency. Then they conduct what is purely a criminal investigation–oftentimes violating other constitutional rights (i.e. Miranda, Edwards, etc.). Such activities inside the home is not community care taking. It is also not lawful absent a warrant or the applicability of an exception to the warrant requirement.

The attorneys at Platt & Buescher have an emphasis in defending against allegations of domestic violence. Call Platt & Buescher today at (360) 678-6777 to discuss your domestic violence matter today.