State v. Ryon

Decision Date03 March 2005
Docket NumberNo. 28,462.,28,462.
Citation108 P.3d 1032,137 N.M. 174,2005 NMSC 5
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Petitioner, v. Patrick Clark RYON, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Patricia A. Madrid, Attorney General, Arthur W. Pepin, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner.

James R. Lally, Alameda, NM, Dane Eric Hannum, Albuquerque, NM, for Respondent.


MINZNER, Justice.

{1} The State has appealed from a decision of the district court granting Defendant's motion to suppress evidence discovered in his home during a warrantless, nonconsensual search by police. The State appealed pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 39-3-3(B)(2) (1972). The district court suppressed the evidence on the ground that the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement was not applicable. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court in a Memorandum Opinion. See State v. Ryon, No. 23,318 (N.M.Ct.App. Jan. 6, 2004). Both courts relied on State v. Nemeth, 2001-NMCA-029, 130 N.M. 261, 23 P.3d 936. We granted certiorari to determine whether the community caretaker exception permits police to enter a dwelling without a warrant or consent during a criminal investigation. We hold that in narrowly limited circumstances police may enter a home without a warrant or consent during a criminal investigation under the emergency assistance doctrine. To the extent that it may be read to preclude an emergency entry during a criminal investigation, we overrule Nemeth. We also clarify the scope of the community caretaker exception. We affirm the district court's decision to suppress evidence, because the police lacked the objective reasonableness required to enter and search Defendant's home.


{2} The facts are taken from testimony at the suppression hearing and are mostly undisputed. At approximately 8:20 p.m. on January 18, 2002, Deputy Sanchez and Deputy Benavidez of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department responded to a dispatch to 128 Alameda N.W. in Albuquerque, New Mexico for a "911 call welfare check" with a "possible stabbing victim." When she arrived, Sanchez saw a man and a woman outside the home. The man, Isaac Atencio, was bleeding heavily from the head, and the woman, Barbara Hoover, was crying and yelling. Sanchez noticed that there was blood all over, but that Atencio was conscious and walking. As she was checking his stab wounds, both Atencio and Hoover told the deputy that Defendant, Hoover's boyfriend, was responsible for the stabbing and that he lived down the street at 9047 Fourth Street. Sergeant Sanchez and a field investigator arrived at the scene within minutes to assist the deputies. While the deputy was helping Atencio and trying to calm Hoover, the sergeant and Benavidez checked the home to ensure that there were no other victims inside and that Defendant was no longer present. Rescue personnel arrived within about five minutes and transported Atencio to the hospital.

{3} As Deputy Sanchez approached the field investigator, a man who was covered in blood approached, identified himself as Defendant, and stated that he wanted to tell her what happened. He was immediately handcuffed, frisked, and Mirandized. He told her that he and Hoover were fighting, and when Atencio tried to intervene, he withdrew his knife and stabbed Atencio. No weapons were found on Defendant. It was about 8:45-8:50 p.m. when Defendant returned to the crime scene.1

{4} Shortly after deputies arrived at the crime scene on Alameda, Deputies Pepin, Neel, and Hampsten, who were in separate patrol cars and heard the first dispatch, responded to a second dispatch to locate the suspect whom they were told might be en route to his home at 9047 Fourth Street. As they were driving to that location, a third dispatcher informed them that the suspect might have a head or face injury, although the source of this information was not given.2 The State estimates that deputies arrived at Defendant's home, which was one of two residences on the property, between 8:25 and 8:30 p.m. Hampsten was to watch the side and back of the home, while Pepin and Neel tried to contact Defendant inside. Both Pepin and Neel testified that the front door was ajar, and the lights were on. Pepin recalled that the door was open "six, seven inches to a foot," while Neel said it was just barely cracked open, about "an inch to an inch and a half." The deputies knocked and announced, called inside, but received no response. Both deputies testified that they went to the home looking for the suspect. Thinking it was odd for the door to be open with no one answering, and knowing that he "may have sustained a head wound of some sort," Pepin testified that they decided to enter the home to see if anybody was injured inside, and that it was "pretty cold outside." On cross examination, he admitted that he went into the home looking for the suspect, but then clarified on redirect, that he entered the home looking for a person with a "possible head injury." Neel testified that they entered the home to look for the suspect and to see if he needed medical attention: "My job there was to make sure that no one else in that house needed aid fast.... My job was to locate the suspect."

{5} According to the deputies, the home was small; to the left of the front door was a hall that led to a bathroom and bedroom, and to the right was a living room with a kitchen in it. After walking down the hall, from room to room, and finding no one inside, they returned to the front of the house. On the way out, they noticed in the kitchen sink a "folding-type knife" that appeared to be stained with blood. Without touching anything, the deputies secured the home and obtained a search warrant.

{6} Defendant filed two motions to suppress evidence "seized or observed" by deputies during the warrantless search of his home and from a search warrant that was executed later that night. Both motions alleged that the evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution.3 In response to the first motion, the State argued that the warrantless search of the home was reasonable under the community caretaker exception. It did not argue that the officers had probable cause together with exigent circumstances to enter Defendant's home without a warrant. Deputies Sanchez, Pepin, and Neel testified at the suppression hearing, and an offer of proof was made on behalf of Defendant and his mother to establish the relevant time frames.

{7} After the hearing, the district court applied the community caretaker exception articulated in Nemeth and found the search was unlawful. 2001-NMCA-029, ¶¶ 37-38, 130 N.M. 261, 23 P.3d 936. The court noted that under Nemeth, the exception "can be invoked only `when the police are not engaged in crime-solving activities.'" See id. ¶ 38 (quoting People v. Davis, 442 Mich. 1, 497 N.W.2d 910, 920 (1993)). Applying the law to the facts, the court concluded:

The Officers were clearly responding to the Defendant's home to locate a criminal suspect. At least in substantial part they were engaged in crime-solving activities. The facts within their knowledge were lacking any indication about source of the information, the likelihood that an injury occurred, the nature or severity of the injury, if any, how it occurred and when it might have occurred in relation to their response. Much of this information (known to fellow officers a short distance away) would have been important to formation of a reasonable belief that the Defendant was in need of immediate medical attention. In summary, the facts within the entering officers' knowledge were not sufficient to elevate their primary role to that of community caretaking.
... It appears to this Court that the officers were acting with good intentions and good faith belief that their entry into the Defendant's residence was permissible to determine whether the Defendant whom they sought was inside and injured.

{8} In affirming the district court decision to suppress the evidence, the Court of Appeals concluded that entry into a private home without a warrant is reasonable only if the State establishes that entry was necessitated by exigent circumstances, an emergency situation, or articulable public safety reasons, and that the officer was acting without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity as a community caretaker. Ryon, No. 23,318, slip. op. at 5. The Court of Appeals concluded that the community caretaker exception was not applicable because the deputies in this case were investigating a crime in which Defendant was a suspect. Id. at 6-7. Applying a deferential standard of review, the court held that there was substantial evidence to support the district court finding that the entering deputies did not have enough information to form a reasonable belief that Defendant was in immediate need of medical attention. Id. We granted the State's petition for certiorari. See Rule 12-502 NMRA 2004.

{9} On appeal to this Court the State argues that the Court of Appeals should have reviewed the reasonableness issue de novo and that both courts misstated the law by relying on Nemeth and applying a "strict, no investigative purpose test." The State contends that the community caretaker exception applies to this case. The State acknowledges that some courts distinguish the exception from a principle sometimes described as the emergency assistance doctrine but contends that the entry was lawful under either the exception or the doctrine. In his answer brief, Defendant argues that the State did not show facts sufficient to satisfy the community caretaker exception. At oral argument, however, he argued that a warrantless entry into the home is lawful only in an emergency. We believe that both parties agree that the proper test for this case was established in People v. Mitchell, 39 N.Y.2d 173, 383 N.Y.S.2d 246, 347 N.E.2d 607 (1976...

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