State v. Ramos-Saunders (ICA April 23, 2015)
Background. Koalaukani Ramos-Saunders was indicted with commercial promotion of marijuana in the first degree and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. Ramos-Saunders moved to suppress all evidence resulting from a warrantless search of the residence.
One morning, the Honolulu Police Department received a “dropped 911 call” from a number registered to Walter Rosskopf listed at a housing unit—Unit B at an address off of Kamehameha Highway. Two officers went to the address and arrived to Unit B. There, they talked to a woman named Paula Burgess. She told them that he used to live in Unit B, but he moved to Unit A. She added that he had prostate cancer. The Units are two stand-alone residences separated by about 750 feet. The officers moved way from Unit B and went to Unit A. They found no one in Unit A.
As they walked around the residence the officers thought they saw the barrel of a firearm with a silencer. The residence was also in “disarray” with a glass sliding door open, the air-conditioner unit was running, and the lights were on. No one was there. The officers called for reinforcements. The officers decided to go into the residence without a warrant. Once inside they found an indoor grow operation. Somehow (the ICA does not explain it) Koalaukani Ramos-Saunders was linked to the operation. Ramos-Saunders moved to suppress the evidence found in the residence. The motion was granted by Judge Glenn J. Kim. The prosecution appealed.
Search and Seizure: the Basics (Since it’s been a while). “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated[.]” U.S. Const. Am. IV. Article I, Section 7 of the Hawaii Constitution has a similar right, but it also includes protection against “unreasonable invasions of privacy.” When the government—like the police—enter a home without a warrant, the search inside is presumptively unreasonable. That means that “the prosecution has the burden of overcoming the initial presumption of unreasonableness by proving that the search falls within one of the well-recognized and narrowly-defined exceptions to the general warrant requirement.” State v. Lopez, 78 Hawaii 433, 443, 896 P.2d 889, 899 (1995).
The prosecution contended that the exigency exception justified the warrantless search, which allows the police to search when the prosecution can show “probable cause to search and exigent circumstances exist necessitating immediate police action.” State v. Pulse, 83 Hawaii 229, 245, 925 P.2d 797, 813 (1996).
How Exigent does it have to be? Pretty Exigent. Exigency arises when “the demands of the occasion reasonably call for an immediate police response. More specifically, it includes situations presenting an immediate danger to life or serious injury or an immediate threatened removal or destruction of evidence.” State v. Jenkins, 93 Hawaii 87, 103, 997 P.2d 13, 29 (2000).
The ICA rejected the prosecution’s exigency claim. The police received a drop call. When they arrived to the scene they learned that the phone number belonged to a man with prostate cancer had moved to Unit A. That was all. According to the ICA, there was no indication that anyone needed immediate police assistance. There was nothing to give the police anything to think that there was an immediate danger to life, limb, injury, or the destruction of evidence. Even when they saw that Unit A was in disarray and saw a gun there was no immediacy. No one was around. The ICA was very clear that the mere presence of a gun and a silencer did not create an exigent circumstance. See State v. Meyer, 78 Hawaii 308, 314, 893 P.2d 159, 163 (1995) (“no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless search or seizure absent ‘exigent circumstances.’”). The ICA affirmed the suppression.
Turning Down the “Emergency Aid” Exception. In the process of rejecting the prosecution’s claim, the ICA declined an extension of the exigency exception. Federal courts interpreting the Fourth Amendment have recognized exigency when the demands of the situation reasonably call for an immediate police response; including those situations where a person requires emergency aid. Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 48 (2009); Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006).
The ICA noted that Hawaii courts have never extended exigency that far. “Article I, section 7 of the Hawaii Constitution affords the people of this state greater protection than does the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution.” State v. Tuua, 98 Hawaii 426, 449, 49 P.3d 1227, 1250 (2002).