Arizona's high court narrows rules for warrantless searches

PHOENIX - The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police officers can't search a home without a warrant to address a possible safety issue - unless there's a true emergency that could affect the public.

Prosecutors sought to expand the exemptions police can use to avoid having to obtain a search warrant from a judge. A lower court opinion rejected that push, and the high court agreed.

The decision stems from a 2011 case where police were called to a home in the Navajo County community of Taylor by neighbors who said a man was acting strangely. The home's resident, Bradley Harold Wilson, told paramedics who accompanied police to his house that he had a jar of mercury in the house that could potentially poison others.

Wilson was taken to a hospital, but a fire official accompanied by a police officer later went inside without a warrant looking for the mercury. The officer spotted marijuana plants growing and Wilson was charged with cultivating marijuana.

Wilson's lawyers tried to have the evidence thrown out at trial because police didn't have a warrant, but a Navajo County Superior Court judge rejected the effort, saying officers were trying to ensure public safety when they went inside. Judge Robert J. Higgins convicted Wilson after a bench trial and put him on probation for two years.

The Arizona Court of Appeals threw out the conviction, saying Higgins should have excluded the evidence of marijuana growing because police obtained it without getting a warrant when there wasn't a true emergency.

The Supreme Court upheld that decision, saying a person's home should be free from warrantless searches except in narrow circumstances.

Chief Justice Scott Bales, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, said police have exemptions to the warrant requirement when required to render emergency aid or when preventing destruction of evidence, for example.

But in this case, none of the exemptions applied and the state wanted a new one based on their "community caretaking" function.

That legal definition can allow police to search impounded cars for dangerous items without a warrant to ensure someone doesn't obtain a gun, for example.

"Extending the community caretaker exception to homes would substantially reduce the protection of privacy afforded by the warrant requirement without significantly increasing the ability of law enforcement to make searches to protect the public," Bales wrote.

Calls to Wilson's attorney and Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon for comment weren't immediately returned.