Professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich was recently interviewed by News Channel 19, in a story about two recent cases in which police officers failed to enter homes, even though persons inside needed police help.
In the first case, out of Columbus, police responded to a neighbor’s call about a domestic dispute and gunshots in a nearby apartment. The police knocked on the door, but left after no one answered. Twenty-four hours later, a friend entered the apartment and found Heather Campbell dead, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide at the hands of her boyfriend, Kyle Lafferty, whose body was also found at the scene. Professor Witmer-Rich explained that the Fourth Amendment “exigent circumstances” doctrine permits police to enter when they reasonably believe there is an imminent threat to the life or safety of someone inside. He observed that there are no bright line rules for when police can and cannot enter–police must make individual judgments based on what they know.
In another case, police responded to a Euclid apartment after the resident, Charles Matlin, failed to show up at a restaurant where he was a regular. After receiving no response, police chose not to force entry. The next day, police entered the house and found Matlin, confused and on the floor of his apartment. Professor Witmer-Rich explained that under the “community caretaker doctrine,” courts often give police more leeway to enter when they are conducting a welfare check than during a criminal investigation.
The News Channel 19 story can be found here.