Ray v. Twp. of Warren, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 24043 (3RD Cir. Nov. 23, 2010)

Third Circuit rules that the community caretaking exception cannot be used to justify warrantless entry of a home, absent exigent circumstances.

Theresa Ray went to her husband's home in Warren, New Jersey, to pick up their youngest daughter for court-ordered visitation. After ringing the doorbell, Ms. Ray observed a man whom she believed to be her husband moving about in the home. Ms. Ray continued to ring the doorbell and knock on the door for several minutes in an attempt to alert the man to her presence. After receiving no response, she called the police. Some of the responding officers had been called by the Rays in the past to deal with domestic problems and were aware of the "acrimonious nature of the Ray's [sic] divorce proceedings and child custody disputes at the home." She informed the officers that she had seen someone inside the home who was not responding to the door, whom she believed to be her husband and whom she assumed had custody of the child at the time. Ms. Ray was visibly upset and told the officers that she was concerned for the wellbeing of her daughter. The officers shared her concern. They circled the perimeter of the house, knocked on the doors and windows, and called Ray's home telephone, but received no response. This heightened the officers' apprehensions because on other occasions when police had been called to the residence, Ray had always responded and turned over his daughter to his wife. The officers entered Ray's home through an unlocked door that was ajar, but obstructed by a piece of lumber meant to keep the door secured. Upon entering the home, the officers encountered Ray's father, who explained to the officers that he had been sleeping and that his son was not at home. After quickly looking through the home, the officers found neither Ray nor his daughter. The event was captured on video by cameras installed in Ray's home. Shortly after the incident, the officers were informed that someone had made contact with Ray and that he was bringing the child to police headquarters. The Circuit Court agreed with other Circuits on this issue "and interpret the Supreme Court's decision in Cady as being expressly based on the distinction between automobiles and homes for Fourth Amendment purposes. The community caretaking doctrine cannot be used to justify warrantless searches of a home. … It is enough to say that, in the context of a search of a home, it does not override the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment or the carefully crafted and well-recognized exceptions to that requirement."

Case Law Alert - 1st Qtr 2011