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The Community Caretaker Exception to a Warrantless Search in Florida

In Florida, the police are generally not allowed to search a person’s home for drugs or evidence of other crimes unless the police have a valid search warrant or consent from the owner or someone authorized to give consent to search. There are, however, exceptions to this general rule. One such exception is called the community caretaker exception.

The community caretaker exception allows a police officer to conduct a search in an emergency situation for the limited purpose of protecting the safety of the general public. For example, if the police are patrolling and someone tells them a guy is having a heart attack in his house. If the police go to the house and see the through the window a guy lying on the floor, the police may be authorized to enter the home to help the victim. If the police find drugs on the table next to the victim, the police may be able to seize those drugs and make an arrest for a drug charge. Normally, the police would not be allowed to enter a person’s home and seize drugs they find in plain view. However, if there was a valid emergency requiring them to enter a house and the drugs were found as they were responding to the emergency, the search may be valid under the community caretaker exception.

The following is an example of when the community caretaker exception is not a valid exception to the search warrant requirement. In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police went to the defendant’s house to serve an old arrest warrant. Once inside, the police officer saw that the defendant had a young child at the home. They agreed to wait for the defendant’s sister to arrive so someone could take the child. When the sister arrived, none of them had the keys to the house. The police officers did not want to leave the house unlocked so the police officers searched the house for the keys. They found the keys in the defendant’s bedroom on a table next to some ammunition. The defendant was a convicted felon so it was a felony crime for him to be in possession of a firearm or ammunition.

At the trial on the possession of ammunition by a convicted felon charge, the criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to throw out the evidence of the police finding the ammunition because the police did not have a search warrant to search the house. The state argued the police had a right to search for the keys under the community caretaker exception.

The court threw out the evidence. There must be an emergency for the community caretaker exception to allow a search without a search warrant or consent. Finding the keys to a home is not an emergency, especially when the defendant’s sister was there and perfectly capable of searching for the keys without the help of the police. As a result, the possession of ammunition by a convicted felon charge was dismissed.