People v. Molnar

Decision Date02 July 2002
PartiesTHE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent, v. ALEXANDER J. MOLNAR, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Inc., Buffalo (Barbara J. Davies and David C. Schopp of counsel), for appellant. Frank J. Clark, District Attorney, Buffalo (J. Michael Marion of counsel), for respondent.

Chief Judge KAYE and Judges SMITH, LEVINE, CIPARICK, WESLEY and GRAFFEO concur.

OPINION OF THE COURT

ROSENBLATT, J.

Defendant was convicted of murder for brutally bludgeoning and strangling his paramour. After a neighbor complained to police about an overwhelming odor emanating from defendant's apartment on Herkimer Street in Buffalo, officers entered and found the victim's decomposing body in the closet. Defendant argues that because the police did not have a search warrant, the body and all evidence stemming from its discovery must be suppressed. We conclude that no warrant was required because the police were responding to an emergency. We therefore affirm defendant's conviction under the emergency exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.

I.

In late July 1999, defendant and the decedent were having sex and smoking crack in defendant's apartment when the two had words. Defendant ended the argument, and the victim's life, by smashing her face with a mallet and then strangling her with a brassiere. After the victim's death, defendant left the body in a closet.

On August 7, a 911 caller alerted police to a "strange odor" at defendant's apartment building. Responding to the scene, the officers spoke to the complaining neighbor, Grimaldi Pomales. He told the officers that defendant's apartment was just below his, and that he had to vacate his own apartment because the smell emanating from defendant's apartment was unbearably putrid. The police confirmed that the "rotting" smell came from defendant's apartment. Although the smell surely suggested it, the police could not have said with certainty that it was caused by a rotting body.

The officers knocked on the door of defendant's apartment, but no one answered. They then tried to open the door, but it was locked. They waited for maintenance personnel, who arrived after about half an hour but did not have a key to defendant's apartment. Police asked about reaching defendant's family members but learned that none could be contacted. The officers then considered entering the apartment from the fire escape, but decided it would be too dangerous. Having assessed the various alternatives for approximately an hour, the officers concluded that it was necessary to force their way in. After ordering the maintenance personnel to pry the door open, the police entered the apartment, using charcoal face masks as protection.

Once inside, the police found vermin throughout the apartment. One window was completely blackened by flies. They saw a pair of socks protruding from a closet, and when they opened its door they found the body, severely decomposed and covered with maggots. The officers then left, securing the premises. Following an investigation, defendant was charged with murder.

After indictment, defendant moved to suppress the body and all evidence flowing from its discovery. Supreme Court denied the motion in relevant part, holding that when the police entered the apartment they were acting as community caretakers—not as criminal investigators—and that the situation facing them presented an emergency "concerning the health and welfare of" all the tenants in the building.

With one Justice dissenting, the Appellate Division affirmed defendant's conviction (288 AD2d 911 [2001]), sustaining the police entry based on the "emergency" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement (see generally People v Mitchell, 39 NY2d 173 [1976]

). The Court held that the cause of the smell could not be ascertained except by entering the apartment, and because the smell was suggestive of harm to anyone inside the apartment, the police were justified in entering without a warrant. In dissent, Justice Green argued, in essence, that a smell does not constitute an "emergency," and granted the defendant leave to appeal (97 NY2d 690 [2001]). We now affirm.

II. The Emergency Exception to the Warrant Requirement

The Fourth Amendment provides that

"[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Courts have long recognized that the Fourth Amendment is not violated every time police enter a private premises without a warrant. Indeed, though warrantless entries into a home are "presumptively unreasonable" (Payton v New York, 445 US 573, 586 [1980]; see also Coolidge v New Hampshire, 403 US 443, 474-475 [1971]

), "[t]he touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness"—not the warrant requirement (United States v Knights, 534 US 112, 118 [2001]).

Recognizing this principle, the Supreme Court has crafted a number of "carefully delineated" exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's Warrant Clause (Welsh v Wisconsin, 466 US 740, 749-750 [1984]).1 Our inquiry centers on the contentions of the parties as to the need for a search warrant. Defendant asserts that the warrantless entry was illegal. The People argue that the entry was justified because the police were acting within the "emergency exception to the warrant requirement."

Police are required to serve the community in innumerable ways, from pursuing criminals to rescuing treed cats. While the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement is the cornerstone of our protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, it is not a barrier to a police officer seeking to help someone in immediate danger (see e.g. Mitchell, 39 NY2d at 177

; see also e.g. Mincey v Arizona, 437 US 385, 392 [1978]).

Indeed, "[p]eople could well die in emergencies if police tried to act with the calm deliberation associated with the judicial process" (Wayne v United States, 318 F2d 205, 212 [DC Cir 1963] [Burger, J., concurring]). Accordingly, "what would be otherwise illegal absent an * * * emergency" becomes justified by the "need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury" (id.).

In Mitchell, the Court applied the emergency exception and held that the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit police from entering the defendant's hotel room when looking for a chambermaid who had been missing for approximately five hours and was last seen on the defendant's floor. As part of a search of the rooms on that floor, they entered the defendant's room where they found a hatchet and the maid's corpse. Our holding stressed the importance of the officers' motivation in undertaking the search. They inspected the defendant's room not to solve a crime or obtain evidence against the defendant,2 but in the hope that they could find, and perhaps assist, a missing person.

In sustaining the warrantless search in Mitchell, we laid out three prerequisites to invoke the emergency exception. First, "[t]he 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" (Mitchell, 39 NY2d at 177). "[T]he protection of human life or property in imminent danger must be the motivation for the search" (id. at 178). Second, "[t]he search must not be primarily motivated by intent to arrest and seize evidence" (id. at 177). Third, "[t]here must be some reasonable basis, approximating probable cause, to associate the emergency with the area or place to be searched" (id. at 177-178). Only the first issue is contested in this appeal.

In addressing the emergency exception, both sides rely on Mitchell. The People assert that the case before us meets Mitchell's emergency requirements. Defendant argues that here, as a matter of law, there was no "emergency," considering that the police allowed an hour to go by before they decided to break in. We agree with the People and conclude that the measured response of the police does not remove the situation from the realm of emergency. Indeed, and most commendably, the police spent about an hour exploring alternatives before forcing their way in. Had there been a fire or screams signifying danger, the police would have been fully justified in forcing the door without a moment's delay.

Not all emergencies are the same. In some, a person's life may hinge on the passage of mere seconds, demanding immediate police action. In others, police must act with reasonable swiftness but their response need not be calculated in seconds.3 Moreover, reasonableness requires police to tailor responses (and their levels of intrusiveness) to the nature of the emergency. At one extreme, they are authorized—if not expected—to break into a premises when, for example, there is a shooting in progress or a hostage held. At the other extreme, we neither want nor authorize police to seize people or premises to remedy what might be characterized as minor irritants. People sometimes create cooking odors or make noise to the point where neighbors complain. But as we live in a free society, we do not expect the police to react to such relatively minor complaints by breaking down the door.

The Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement was not meant to apply to situations where police reasonably need to enter a premises for a legitimate, benevolent purpose distinct from crime-fighting.4 The Fourth Amendment's incorporation against the states (see Wolf v Colorado, 338 US 25, 27-28 [1949]

) has accommodated the varied responsibilities of the local constable (see Cady v Dombrowski, 413 US 433, 440-441 [1973] [acknowledging the need for an adaption of Fourth Amendment...

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