466 U.S. 740 (1984), 82-5466, Welsh v. Wisconsin

Docket Nº:No. 82-5466
Citation:466 U.S. 740, 104 S.Ct. 2091, 80 L.Ed.2d 732
Party Name:Welsh v. Wisconsin
Case Date:May 15, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court

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466 U.S. 740 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 2091, 80 L.Ed.2d 732




No. 82-5466

United States Supreme Court

May 15, 1984

Argued October 5, 1984



On the night of April 24, 1978, a witness observed a car that was being driven erratically and that eventually swerved off the road, coming to a stop in a field without causing damage to any person or property. Ignoring the witness' suggestion that he wait for assistance in removing his car, the driver walked away from the scene. The police arrived a few minutes later, and were told by the witness that the driver was either very inebriated or very sick. After checking the car's registration, the police, without obtaining a warrant, proceeded to the petitioner's nearby home, arriving at about 9 p.m. They gained entry when petitioner's stepdaughter answered the door, and found petitioner lying naked in bed. Petitioner was then arrested for driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant in violation of a Wisconsin statute which provided that a first offense was a noncriminal violation subject to a civil forfeiture proceeding for a maximum fine of $200. Petitioner was taken to the police station, where he refused to submit to a breathanalysis test. Pursuant to Wisconsin statutes, which subjected an arrestee who refused to take the test to the risk of a 60-day revocation of driving privileges, petitioner requested a court hearing to determine whether his refusal was reasonable. Under Wisconsin law, a refusal to take a breath test was reasonable if the underlying arrest was not lawful. The trial court, ultimately concluding that petitioner's arrest was lawful and that his refusal to take the breath test was therefore [104 S.Ct. 2093] unreasonable, issued an order suspending petitioner's license. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals vacated the order, concluding that the warrantless arrest of petitioner in his home violated the Fourth Amendment because the State, although demonstrating probable cause to arrest, had not established the existence of exigent circumstances. The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed.

Held: The warrantless, nighttime entry of petitioner's home to arrest him for a civil, nonjailable traffic offense, was prohibited by the special protection afforded the individual in his home by the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 748-754.

(a) Before government agents may invade the sanctity of the home, the government must demonstrate exigent circumstances that overcome the presumption of unreasonableness that attaches to all warrantless home entries. An important factor to be considered when determining

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whether any exigency exists is the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made. Moreover, although no exigency is created simply because there is probable cause to believe that a serious crime has been committed, application of the exigent circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense has been committed. Pp. 748-753.

(b) Petitioner's warrantless arrest in the privacy of his own bedroom for a noncriminal traffic offense cannot be justified on the basis of the "hot pursuit" doctrine, because there was no immediate or continuous pursuit of the petitioner from the scene of a crime, or on the basis of a threat to public safety, because petitioner had already arrived home and had abandoned his car at the scene of the accident. Nor can the arrest be justified as necessary to preserve evidence of petitioner's blood alcohol level. Even assuming that the underlying facts would support a finding of this exigent circumstance, given the fact that the State had chosen to classify the first offense for driving while intoxicated as a noncriminal, civil forfeiture offense for which no imprisonment was possible, a warrantless home arrest cannot be upheld simply because evidence of the petitioner's blood alcohol level might have dissipated while the police obtained a warrant. Pp. 753-754.

108 Wis.2d 319, 321 N.W.2d 245, vacated and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 755. BURGER, C.J., filed a separate statement, post, p. 755. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 756.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980), held that, absent probable cause and exigent circumstances, warrantless arrests in the home are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.

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But the Court in that case explicitly refused

to consider the sort of emergency or dangerous situation, described in our cases as "exigent circumstances," that would justify a warrantless entry into a home for the purpose of either arrest or search.

Id. at 583. Certiorari was granted in this case to decide at least one aspect of the unresolved question: whether, and if so under what circumstances, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the police from making a warrantless night entry of a person's home in order to arrest him for a nonjailable traffic offense.



Shortly before 9 o'clock on the rainy night of April 24, 1978, a lone witness, Randy Jablonic, observed a car being driven erratically. After changing speeds and veering from side to side, the car eventually swerved off the road and came to a stop in an open field. No damage to any person or property occurred. Concerned about the driver and fearing that the car would get [104 S.Ct. 2094] back on the highway, Jablonic drove his truck up behind the car so as to block it from returning to the road. Another passerby also stopped at the scene, and Jablonic asked her to call the police. Before the police arrived, however, the driver of the car emerged from his vehicle, approached Jablonic's truck, and asked Jablonic for a ride home. Jablonic instead suggested that they wait for assistance in removing or repairing the car. Ignoring Jablonic's suggestion, the driver walked away from the scene.

A few minutes later, the police arrived and questioned Jablonic. He told one officer what he had seen, specifically noting that the driver was either very inebriated or very sick. The officer checked the motor vehicle registration of the abandoned car and learned that it was registered to the petitioner, Edward G. Welsh. In addition, the officer noted that the petitioner's residence was a short distance from the scene, and therefore easily within walking distance.

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Without securing any type of warrant, the police proceeded to the petitioner's home, arriving about 9 p.m. When the petitioner's stepdaughter answered the door, the police gained entry into the house.1 Proceeding upstairs to the petitioner's bedroom, they found him lying naked in bed. At this point, the petitioner was placed under arrest for driving or operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant, in violation of Wis.Stat. § 346.63(1) (1977).2 The petitioner was taken to the police station, where he refused to submit to a breath-analysis test.


As a result of these events, the petitioner was subjected to two separate but related proceedings: one concerning his refusal to submit to a breath test and the other involving the alleged code violation for driving while intoxicated. Under the Wisconsin Vehicle Code in effect in April 1978, one arrested for driving while intoxicated under § 346.63(1) could be requested by a law enforcement officer to provide breath, blood, or urine samples for the purpose of determining the presence or quantity of alcohol. Wis.Stat. § 343.305(1) (1975). If such a request was made, the arrestee was required

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to submit to the appropriate testing or risk a revocation of operating privileges. Cf. South Dakota v. Neville, 459 U.S. 553 (1983) (admission into evidence of a defendant's refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test does not offend constitutional right against self-incrimination). The arrestee could challenge the officer's request, however, by refusing to undergo testing and then asking for a hearing to determine whether the refusal was justified. If, after the hearing, it was determined that the refusal was not justified, the arrestee's operating privileges would be revoked for 60 days.3

[104 S.Ct. 2095] The statute also set forth specific criteria to be applied by a court when determining whether an arrestee's refusal to take a breath test was justified. Included among these criteria was a requirement that, before revoking the arrestee's operating privileges, the court determine that "the refusal . . . to submit to a test was unreasonable." § 343.305(2)(b)(5) (1975). It is not disputed by the parties that an arrestee's refusal to take a breath test would be reasonable, and therefore operating privileges could not be revoked, if the underlying arrest was not lawful. Indeed, state law has consistently provided that a valid arrest is a necessary prerequisite to the imposition of a breath test. See Scales v. State, 64 Wis.2d 485, 494, 219 N.W.2d 286, 292 (1974).4 Although the statute

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in effect in April, 1978, referred to reasonableness, the current version of § 343.305 explicitly recognizes that one of the issues that an arrestee may raise at a refusal hearing is "whether [he] was lawfully placed under arrest for violation of s.346.63(1)." §§ 343.305(3)(b)(5)(a), (8)(b) (1981-1982). See also 67 Op.Wis.Atty.Gen. No. 93-78 (1978) ("statutory

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scheme . . . contemplates that a lawful arrest be made prior to a request for submission to a test").5

Separate statutory provisions control the penalty that might be imposed for the substantive offense of driving while intoxicated. At the time in question, the Vehicle Code provided...

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