In State v. Rubio, the WA Court of Appeals Division III upheld the defendant’s conviction for Possession of Methamphetamine because exigent circumstances existed to seize and search the defendant after it was discovered he had open warrants for his arrest and possibly witnessed a domestic violence incident.
Officers from the Spokane police department responded to a domestic disturbance call and found Ricardo J. Rubio inside the apartment at the reported address. Police ran a check on Mr. Rubio and discovered three outstanding warrants for his arrest. He was subsequently arrested and booked into jail. While being booked, police discovered methamphetamine in Mr. Rubio’s sock. He was convicted of possession of a controlled substance. The judge denied Rubio’s pretrial motion to suppress the evidence. He was later convicted at a bench trial.
Rubio appealed on the argument that he was unlawfully seized because he was merely witnessed the reported DV disturbance. The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. They reasoned the seizure was lawful under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.
Some background is necessary. Generally, warrantless searches are unreasonable per se under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, courts recognize a few carefully drawn exceptions to this rule. The State carries the burden of proving that a warrantless seizure falls into one of these exceptions. A recognized exception to the warrant requirement allows police to seize and search a person without a warrant when justified by “exigent circumstances.”
An officer is allowed to stop a witness under exigent circumstances when (1) the officer has reasonable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony involving danger or forcible injury to persons has just been committed near the place where he finds such person, (2) the officer has reasonable cause to believe that such person has knowledge of material aid in the investigation of such crime, and (3) such action is reasonably necessary to obtain or verify the identification of such person, or to obtain an account of such crime. The rationale behind the exigent circumstances exception is to permit a warrantless search where the circumstances are such that obtaining a warrant would compromise officer safety, facilitate escape or permit the destruction of evidence.
Here, the court reasoned Mr. Rubio was lawfully seized even though the officer had no search warrant. The officer’s detention of Mr. Rubio was reasonable due to exigent circumstances because it was imperative that the officer quickly locate the injured woman and her assailant.
The court also reasoned the seizure under exigent circumstances was lawful for three reasons. First, the police officer had reason to believe that a crime was just committed at the address involving injury to a person. Second, the officer had reason to believe that each person who was in the apartment, including Mr. Rubio, had knowledge which would aid in the investigation of the crime. Third, the officer’s request for Mr. Rubio’s identification was necessary to determine the true identity of Mr. Rubio. Running the warrant check was needed to verify that Mr. Rubio was the person he claimed to be. Consequently, Officer Kirby’s seizure of Mr. Rubio was lawful under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.
My opinion? This is a difficult case to swallow. Sure, Mr. Rubio had warrants for his arrest. And yes, the police can lawfully arrest and incarcerate people for that reason alone. And yes, the authorities regularly find illegal contraband during inventory searches and/or when defendants are booked into jail on warrants.
Still, it’s difficult to accept the notion that citizens can become criminal defendants by merely being at the wrong place at the wrong time; and that merely witnessing an alleged incident can lead one to be seized, searched and charged for a totally different crime than the one police responded to in the first place. Interesting.