Thursday, March 12, 1998

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Reynolds 83SA346

Decided December 5, 1983

   Officers responded to a call that a gun had been fired during a domestic dispute, and that the reporting party's mother had locked herself in the bathroom.  When they got there, Reynolds admitted the police into the house and gave the police permission (entirely unnecessarily, in my opinion) to break down the bathroom door in order to render aid to his wife, who he said had been shot.  The cops broke down the door, and found Reynolds' dead wife in the bathroom.  Reynolds was subsequently arrested, and in continuing their search of the house (looking for additional victims), the police found additional evidence (including a revolver).  An hour and a half later, CSI photographed the scene, took measurements, and generally did what CSI does.  No warrant had been obtained. 

   The trial court ruled that the police had lawfully made entry into the residence based on the emergency exception to the warrant requirement.  The court also ruled that the evidence was discovered during a lawful search and validly seized under the plain view exception.  However, the pictures and measurements taken by CSI were suppressed because the court held that a warrant was required before CSI could do their thing (the emergency having apparently expired).  The people filed an interlocutory appeal.

   In its decision, the Colorado Supreme Court discussed three exceptions to the warrant requirement: exigent circumstances (in particular, the emergency exception), consent, and plain view.

   The emergency exception exists where there is "a colorable claim of emergency threatening the life or safety of another."  Searches under this exception must be limited to the scope of the emergency (so you can't go looking for gunshot victims in the kitchen drawer.  If they fit in there, the emergency has passed).  The circumstances of this case supported searching the entire house for victims, suspects, or weapons under the emergency exception.

   Consent exists where a person voluntarily waives his rights.  Consent may be limited in scope, time, area (or pretty much whichever way the person giving consent wants to limit it, although the court doesn't come right out and say that).  Consent was also present in this case (at least when the police were kicking down doors), although the district court did not consider it.

   The plain view exception allows police to seize incriminating evidence which they discover under three conditions: 1- the initial intrusion into the protected area must be valid (either under a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement), 2- the discovery of the evidence must be inadvertent, and 3- the officer has to know that the evidence is incriminating (seems simple enough, but it apparently has to be said.  I almost hate to wonder who screwed that one up so that the court had to spell it out?).

   In this case, the items of evidence were validly seized under the plain view doctrine, pursuant either to consent or the emergency exception.  Now on to the recordings.  The court held that although 90 minutes had passed between the discovery of the evidence and the processing of the scene, the scene was processed as part of an ongoing investigation and was justified under the same circumstances that justified the initial entry and search.  The court didn't see any logic behind the suppression of pictures of lawfully seized evidence.  The suppression order was reversed, and the case remanded back to the trial court to determine whether or not the scene processing exceeded the scope of the original justified search.  Just like an emergency can't justify a general exploratory search, CSI processing of lawfully obtained evidence can't justify a further exploratory search.  If the processing expands beyond the previous search, then the evidence obtained can be suppressed.

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