What the ‘Community Caretaking’ Exception Is and How You Can Overcome Its Attempted Use by Prosecutors in Your Maryland Criminal Case

When you are on trial for drug crimes or weapons charges, there’s a realistic chance that the primary evidence the state intends to use against you was obtained by a police search conducted without a warrant. The state will inevitably attempt to argue that the evidence is admissible under one or more of the exceptions to the general rule against warrantless searches but, sometimes, that argument is deficient, and there is no constitutionally permissible basis for the warrantless search in your case. When that happens, it is critical to have a skillful Maryland criminal defense attorney on your side to get that evidence excluded from your case.

One of the exceptions to the rule against warrantless searches is something called the “community caretaking” exception. This exception recognizes that the police wear multiple hats. Not only do their job duties include obtaining evidence to use against criminal suspects, but also ensuring public safety. It is important to recognize, however, that a police officer’s public safety duties do not give them carte blanche to do whatever they want in terms of conducting a search. If they do a search that goes beyond what is necessary to ensure safety, then the exception will not cover the evidence they find.

A recent drug case from Frederick was a good example. A police officer responded to an apartment building at 2:00 a.m. after a 911 call and a potential domestic disturbance. In the apartment, the officer encountered a man and a woman. Later, a second officer arrived as back-up. At that time, the woman disclosed that her children were in the apartment.

The second officer did a “protective sweep” of the apartment to check on the children and to make sure there were no other individuals in the apartment. The officer, as part of that sweep, checked the apartment bathtub, where he found a quantity of cocaine.

In the state’s case against the man, the prosecution argued that the cocaine, even though the officer seized it in a warrantless search, was admissible under the community caretaking exception. The officer, the state argued, was ensuring the welfare of the children and the safety of all the police officers when he stumbled onto the drugs in the bathtub, thereby making them admissible.

The ‘Community Caretaking’ Exception is Not An Unlimited One

The appeals court disagreed and ruled for the accused man. The “community caretaking” exception is not a blank check, and the exception extends only as far as the officer’s engagement in an activity that was directly necessary to ensure public safety. For example, the first officer was acting permissibly as a community caretaker when she entered the apartment without a warrant, as she had a reasonable concern that a domestic assault may have happened (or may have been ongoing.)

However, once that officer removed the man from the apartment, obtained a statement from the woman that no assault occurred and discovered that the woman’s other “male friend,” who was the source of the pair’s argument, had departed the apartment, her community caretaking role ended, according to the court. Any evidence she would have discovered after that point would not have been admissible under the community caretaking exception.

Similarly, the second officer had a valid basis to perform a sweep of the apartment to ensure the welfare of the woman’s children. However, once he found the children safe and asleep in their beds, his community caretaking role ended. Because he searched the bathtub (and found the cocaine) after he located the children, the community caretaking exception did not apply and the cocaine was not admissible evidence.

On TV, the difference between conviction and acquittal is often some very dramatic “a-ha!” moment on the witness stand. In real life, the difference between acquittal and conviction can often lie somewhere very different, like a motion to suppress evidence seized without a warrant. To make sure that you are optimally equipped to win these arguments and present the strongest possible defense, count on the skilled Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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