WELSH V. WISCONSIN

CASE SUMMARY

Welsh v. Wisconsin,466 U.S. 740 (1984)

Officers entered defendant’s home while he was asleep in his bed and arrested him. Prior to his arrest the defendant drove while intoxicated. The defendant did not drive his car home, instead he abandoned his car in an open field and walked home. Officers after identifying the defendant as the owner of the abandoned car entered the defendants home without a warrant and arrested him in bed for driving under the influence.

Held: Officers warrantless arrest of the defendant violated his fourth amendment right because the offense the defendant was arrested for was a minor, non bailable offense.

Table of Contents

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO

FACTS

Shortly before 9 o’clock on the rainy night of April 24, 1978, Randy Jablonic, observed a car being driven erratically. After changing speeds and veering from side to side, the car eventually swerved off the road and came to a stop in an open field. No damage to any person or property occurred. Jablonic was Concerned about the driver and feared that the car would get back on the highway. He therefore drove his truck up behind the car so as to block it from returning to the road. 

Another passerby also stopped at the scene, and Jablonic asked her to call the police. Before the police arrived, however, the driver of the car emerged from his vehicle, approached Jablonic’s truck, and asked Jablonic for a ride home. Jablonic instead suggested that they wait for assistance in removing or repairing the car. The driver ignored Jablonic’s request, and walked away from the scene.

A few minutes later, the police arrived and questioned Jablonic. He told one officer what he had seen, specifically noting that the driver was either very inebriated or very sick. The officer checked the motor vehicle registration of the abandoned car and learned that it was registered to the Edward G. Welsh. 

In addition, the officer noted that the Welsh’s residence was a short distance from the scene, and therefore easily within walking distance. So without securing any type of warrant, the police proceeded to the Welsh’s home at about 9 p.m. When the Welsh’s stepdaughter answered the door, the police gained entry into the house. The police proceeded upstairs to the Welsh’s bedroom, and found him lying naked in bed. Welsh was placed under arrest for driving or operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant, in violation of a Wis.Stat. Welsh was taken to the police station. He refused to submit to a breath-analysis test.

As a result of these events, Welsh was subjected to two separate but related proceedings: one concerning his refusal to submit to a breath test and the other involving the alleged code violation for driving while intoxicated. Under the Wisconsin Vehicle Code in effect in April 1978, one arrested for driving while intoxicated under § 346.63(1) could be requested by a law enforcement officer to provide breath, blood, or urine samples for the purpose of determining the presence or quantity of alcohol. If such a request was made, the arrestee was required to submit to the appropriate testing or risk a revocation of operating privileges for 60 days.

Welsh was convicted of the offense of driving under the influence.

He appealed his conviction

ISSUES

Whether the warrantless arrest of Welsh in his home for a minor, non jailable offense violated his fourth amendment rights.

RULE

An important factor to be considered when determining whether any exigency exists is the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made. Application of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense has been committed.

APPLICATION / ANALYSIS

Here the court found that the officers conduct was unreasonable because no exigent circumstance justified the warrantless arrest of a minor, non jailable offense.

Here is how the court explained its position:

The court reiterated that it is a basic principle of the fourth amendment that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable. But found that the exigency that could justify a warrantless entry were not present in this case.

The court explained that even if one were to conclude that urgent circumstances might justify a forced entry without a warrant, no such emergency was present in this case. This method of law enforcement displays a shocking lack of all sense of proportion. Whether there is reasonable necessity for a search without, waiting to obtain a warrant certainly depends somewhat upon the gravity of the offense thought to be in progress as well as the hazards of the method of attempting to reach it….

We therefore conclude that the common-sense approach utilized by most lower courts is required by the Fourth Amendment prohibition on “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and hold that an important factor to be considered when determining whether any exigency exists is the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made. Moreover, although no exigency is created simply because there is probable cause to believe that a serious crime has been committed, application of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense, such as the kind at issue in this case, has been committed.

Application of this principle to the facts of the present case is relatively straightforward. Welsh was arrested in the privacy of his own bedroom for a noncriminal, traffic offense. The State attempts to justify the arrest by relying on the hot-pursuit doctrine, on the threat to public safety, and on the need to preserve evidence of the petitioner’s blood-alcohol level. On the facts of this case, however, the claim of hot pursuit is unconvincing because there was no immediate or continuous pursuit of the petitioner from the scene of a crime. Moreover, because the petitioner had already arrived home, and had abandoned his car at the scene of the accident, there was little remaining threat to the public safety. Hence, the only potential emergency claimed by the State was the need to ascertain the petitioner’s blood-alcohol level.

Even assuming, however, that the underlying facts would support a finding of this exigent circumstance, mere similarity to other cases involving the imminent destruction of evidence is not sufficient. The State of Wisconsin has chosen to classify the first offense for driving while intoxicated as a noncriminal, civil forfeiture offense for which no imprisonment is possible. This is the best indication of the State’s interest in precipitating an arrest, and is one that can be easily identified both by the courts and by officers faced with a decision to arrest. Given this expression of the State’s interest, a warrantless home arrest cannot be upheld simply because evidence of the Welsh’s blood-alcohol level might have dissipated while the police obtained a warrant. To allow a warrantless home entry on these facts would be to approve unreasonable police behavior that the principles of the Fourth Amendment will not sanction.

CONCLUSION

Welsh’s conviction was over turned because a the warrantless arrest in his home for a minor offense violated his fourth amendment right.

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