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State Court Lets Stand Ruling on Warrantless Entry in O.C. Case

October 14, 1994|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Even when a person denies that domestic violence has occurred in his or her home, police can enter and investigate if they reasonably suspect a problem, according to a ruling left intact by the state Supreme Court.

A Newport Beach woman whose drug conviction resulted from a police search in response to a report of a man shoving a woman around was denied review of an appeal in a unanimous court decision Thursday.

An appeals court had ruled in her case that an apparent domestic violence emergency authorized police to enter without a search warrant, despite the woman's assurances that everything was all right. The high court's action makes the appellate ruling binding on trial courts statewide.

The case stems from an incident in November, 1992, when Newport Beach police got an anonymous tip about a domestic disturbance.

Upon arriving at the home, one officer saw a man inside and heard a shout, said the 4th District Court of Appeal. Police knocked on the door, and a woman, Melissa Ayotte, came to the door breathing heavily and looking frightened, the court said.

She had a red mark under one eye and slight darkness under both eyes, leading Officer Bradley Green to believe she had been struck in the face. But Ayotte told Green that the red mark was a birthmark and that she had fallen down the stairs. She also said she was alone in the house.

Green, who had investigated other domestic violence cases, knew that battered women commonly deny being abused and believed that Ayotte and possibly others in the home were in danger, the court said.

The officers entered the home, saw marijuana and cocaine in plain view and arrested Ayotte and her boyfriend, John Anthony Higgins, on drug charges. No battery charges were filed.

After Superior Court Commissioner Richard M. Aronson upheld the search, Ayotte and Higgins pleaded guilty and were given short sentences. Their challenge to the search was rejected by the appeals court in June.

Past rulings in California and other states recognize that "probable cause of ongoing spousal abuse at a residence warrants immediate police intervention," said Justice Sheila Sonenshine in the 3-0 appellate ruling.

She said the normal requirement of a search warrant to enter a home does not apply in emergencies where immediate harm is a possibility. Sonenshine indicated that police who have reason to believe violence is likely can intervene without waiting for a search warrant, though she stopped short of saying that every domestic violence report justifies a warrantless entry.

"The officers' actions were objectively reasonable and motivated by their concern for Ayotte's well-being," Sonenshine said.

Higgins did not appeal the ruling. His lawyer, Douglas G. Benedon, said he disagreed with the court's refusal to require a search warrant but thought the decision was relatively narrow because it did not give police an automatic right of entry in every domestic violence case.

But Ayotte's lawyer, Brian P. Trela, said that the ruling comes close to creating a "domestic violence exception to the Fourth Amendment," the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

"If someone says they're not in danger, and they're in no apparent position of danger, but the cops want to go in and check things out, this (ruling) just about gives them permission, if they can find some articulable facts to conclude that the person might be in danger or wasn't telling them the truth," he said.

The case is People vs. Higgins and Ayotte, S041424.

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