SEATTLE – Failing to object to a police officer's entry into your home is not the same as consenting to a warrantless search, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in throwing out a Sequim woman's drug conviction.
The 5-4 decision was made on two grounds.
First, the majority said police responding to a potential domestic violence call in April 2004 had no evidence that an emergency was occurring when they entered Patricia Schultz’s apartment without a warrant – a search that eventually led to her methamphetamine conviction.
Second, the justices said Schultz’s failure to object to the officers’ entry did not equal her consent to a warrantless search.
Police received a report of yelling at Schultz’s home and arrived to hear Schultz and her male roommate, Sam Robertson, talking loudly. They heard Robertson say he wanted to be left alone, but when they knocked on the door, a flushed and upset Schultz told them she was home alone. Robertson soon emerged from another room.
The officers entered without asking permission and interviewed the pair separately, noticing a marijuana pipe on a table. They used the evidence of the pipe to later obtain a search warrant, and that’s when they found the meth.
Police don’t need a warrant to enter homes when they’re responding to an emergency. But Justice Tom Chambers wrote for the majority that this is the first time the court evaluated what constitutes an emergency in the context of a domestic violence call.
Courts must recognize how sensitive domestic violence calls are and weigh that in favor of officers who enter homes without warrants, Chambers wrote. But in this case, he said, officers had no reason to believe anyone was in danger.
“Domestic violence protection must also, of course, be consistent with the protection the state Constitution has secured for the sanctity and privacy of the home,” Chambers wrote.
He was joined by Justices Charles Johnson, James Johnson, Debra Stephens and Richard Sanders.
Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote the dissent, arguing that the two police officers did have reason to enter the apartment – especially after Schultz initially lied by saying she was home alone.
The lie “would confirm an officer’s fear that Schultz and Robertson were involved in a domestic violence emergency,” Fairhurst wrote. “Because Schultz and Robertson cohabitated, it was incumbent upon the officers to ensure that no violence had occurred or would occur after the officers’ departure.”
Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen and Justices Susan Owens and Gerry Alexander signed the dissent.