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Emergency Exception and Officer Safety

Welfare Checks

Welfare Checks and the "Emergency Aid" DoctrineChecking for victims in a residence upon a "reasonable belief" that someone inside a residence is in need of aid, or that there is an imminent threat to the life or welfare of someone inside, an immediate, justifies a warrantless entry.   (People v. Ray (1999) 21 Cal.4th 464; Tamborino v. Superior Court (1986) 41 Cal.3rd 919; People v. Ammons (1980) 103 Cal.App.3rd 20.)

In Ray, supra, a "plurality" of the California Supreme Court ruled that under the so-called "emergency aid doctrine," which is a subcategory of a law enforcement officer's "community caretaking" duties, a warrantless entry into a residence may be allowed whenever police officers "reasonably believe" someone inside is in need of assistance or action must be taken to preserve the occupant's property. 

"The appropriate standard under the community caretaking exception is one of reasonableness:  Given the known facts, would a prudent and reasonable officer have perceived a need to act in the proper discharge of his or her community caretaking functions?"  (Id. at pp. 476-477.)

Three justices in Ray found this "emergency aid doctrine" to be a subcategory of the "community caretaking" rationale, and not a form of "exigent circumstance."  (People v. Ray, supra, at p. 471.)  Three concurring justices found such a situation to come within the standard "exigent circumstance" rationale.  (Id., at p. 480.)

The "community caretaking" theory was found to be inapplicable when officers entered the defendant's locked-off property based upon little more than a neighbor's unsubstantiated belief that the defendants might have been the victims of a "drug rip-off" the night before.  Finding a small amount of marijuana debris at the edge of the defendants' property and a small depression leading under the fence was not legally sufficient.  Also, the officers appeared more concerned with investigating allegations that the defendants were cultivating marijuana.  The community caretaking theory is inapplicable when the police act to solve crime as opposed to coming to the aid of persons.  (People v. Morton (2003) 114 Cal.App.4th 1039.)

The "emergency aid" exception to the Fourth Amendment, per the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, is a function of law enforcement's "community caretaking function," and requires a finding of three circumstances to be applicable:

  • The police must have "reasonable grounds" to believe that there is an emergency at hand and an immediate need for their assistance for the protection of life or property; and
  • The search must not be primarily motivated by an intent to arrest and seize evidence; and
  • There must be some reasonable basis, "approximating probable cause," to associate the emergency with the area or place to be searched.

(United States v. Cervantes (9th Cir. 2000) 219 F.3rd 882, 888-890; Martin v. City of Oceanside (9th Cir. 2004) 360 F.3rd 1078, 1081-1083; United States v. Martinez (9th Cir. 2005) 406 F.3rd 1160; United States v. Russell (9th Cir. 2006) 436 F.3rd 1086.)


A police officer's entry into a residence, motivated out of a concern for the welfare of a nine-year-old child who the officers suspected had been left home alone at night, was lawful under the so-called "emergency doctrine," which is derived from the officers' "community caretaking function."  The "emergency doctrine" is an exception to the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on warrantless residential entries, and "may be justified by the need to protect life or avoid serious injury."  (United States v. Bradley (9th Cir. 2003) 321 F.3rd 1212.)

Two warrantless entries to look for a missing eight-year-old girl based upon probable cause to believe that she, or her body, might be in the apartment.  (People v. Panah (2005) 35 Cal.4th 395, 464-469.)

Information that "suspicious activity" was taking place at a home, finding a rear sliding door slightly ajar, with the lights and a television on inside, but with no one responding to the officers' attempts to get the attention of the occupants, was sufficient "probable cause" to believe that a resident in the house might have been in danger or injured.  (Murdock v. Stout (9th Cir. 1995) 54 F.3rd 1437.)

Sheriff's Deputies responding to a shooting call, not knowing whether the defendant had shot himself or whether there was a second victim or a possible shooter in the house, were justified in making a warrantless entry to look for more victims and/or a possible shooter.  (United States v. Russell (9th Cir. 2006) 436 F.3rd 1086.)

The warrantless entry of the defendant's trailer, based upon "probable cause" to believe a kidnap victims were inside, was justified.  (People v. Coddington (2000) 23 Cal.4th 529, 580.)

Whether or not the FBI agents in Coddington actually needed full-blown "probable cause" to believe the victims were in inside and in immediate need of rescue was not discussed.  Arguably, a simple "reasonable suspicion" would have been sufficient.

An emergency 911 call reporting an accidental stabbing justified a warrantless entry of a hotel room for the limited purpose of ensuring the safety of those inside.  (People v. Snead (1991) 1 Cal.App.4th 380, 386.)

Responding to a domestic violence call, officers contacted a woman who, although denying there was a problem, appeared to be frightened and apparently had been struck.  The warrantless entry was upheld based upon what the Court determined to be sufficient "probable cause."  (People v. Higgins (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 247, 252-255.)

Responding to a call concerning a "shooting," a bullet hole was found in a patio door and blood on the patio floor.  Entry was justified for the purpose of checking for possible shooting victims.  (People v. Soldoff (1980) 112 Cal.App.3rd 1.)

And see United States v. Martinez (9th Cir. 2005) 406 F.3rd 1160, a questionable legal analysis attempting to differentiate the differences between "exigent circumstance" and the "emergency doctrine" as it relates to a domestic violence situation.  The Court found that checking a residence for a potential domestic violence victim fell under the later.

Also note Brigham City v. Stuart (2006) 547 U.S. 398 [164 L.Ed.2nd 650], where the Supreme Court ignored efforts by the lower courts to categorize the entry into a house upon viewing an altercation through the window as coming within the "emergency aid doctrine," and merely noted the exigency of protecting the occupants from being hurt.  In so doing, the Court held that a warrantless entry into a residence is lawful when police have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.

Entry into a residence to check for the possible presence of a domestic violence victim who had telephoned police minutes earlier to ask for assistance in returning to the apartment to retrieve her belongings, but who couldn't be found upon the officers arrival, was held to be lawful under the circumstances.  (United States v. Black (9th Cir. 2007) 482 F.3rd 1035.)

While the case was analyzed as a "welfare check" and "exigent circumstances," the Court noted in a footnote (fn. 1) that they same result would be applicable if analyzed under the "emergency aid doctrine."

But see:

Calabretta v. Floyd (9th Cir. 1999) 189 F.3rd 808, where it was held that an entry of a residence for the purpose of investigating a possible child abuse, where there were no exigent circumstances requiring an immediate entry, requires "probable cause" and a search warrant. 

But see United States v. Deemer (9th Cir. 2004) 354 F.3rd 1130; where it was held that an anonymous 911-hangup call, traceable to a particular motel, but without sufficient information to determine which room the call may have come from, did not allow for the non-consensual entry into the defendant's room to see is anyone needed help merely because of the suspicious attempts by the person who answered the door to keep the officers from looking inside, and her apparent lies concerning no one else being there.

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