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Wisconsin Supreme Court expands police search powers: Part I

As we have previously written, the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement. This generally means that police officers must have a warrant before conducting a search, especially when searching someone's home. When evidence is obtained without a search warrant, defendants may file a motion to have that illegally obtained evidence suppressed (essentially thrown out).

There are several exceptions to the warrant requirement, however, including the "community caretaker" exception. If police discover evidence of a crime while attempting to protect the public from a situation that could be dangerous, the evidence they discover would be permissible in prosecuting the crime later. As an example, if police break down someone's front door because they hear cries for help coming from inside, any contraband (drugs, etc.) found in the process could be used as evidence later on.

The community caretaker exception is vague, and its boundaries have largely been determined by how courts rule in specific cases. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ruled to broaden police powers in claiming the community caretaker exception, giving law enforcement more latitude to conduct warrantless searches.

The case in question involved a 2012 police search in Kenosha. They originally came to the defendant's house to question him about allegedly beating up his brother. The two had fought one another and the defendant admitted it. He voluntarily let police into the house but would not let them into a certain locked room. They eventually found the key and let themselves in, at which point they found evidence of a marijuana growing operation.

The defendant sought to suppress the illegally obtained evidence, and the court agreed. The decision was later upheld by the Court of Appeals. Recently, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings, instead saying that police were involved in community caretaker action when the evidence was discovered.

This case will likely have a serious impact on interpretations of Fourth Amendment protections here in Wisconsin. Please check back next week as we continue the discussion.

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