Attorneys for a Kenosha man who lost a 4-3 decision before Wisconsin's Supreme Court has now asked the nation's highest court to clarify just when police can search a home without a warrant or consent.
Police had come to Charles Matalonis' house to investigate a fight between him and his brother, who was found bleeding at a neighbor's house and then taken to a hospital. Matalonis admitted to the fight, and said he was defending himself. But he refused to open a locked, second floor bedroom for officers, who said they would then break open the door (in the end, they found the key and opened it). Inside, they found one marijuana plant and arrested Matalonis, who was later charged with a felony drug offense.
After the trial judged denied a motion to suppress the evidence, and Matalonis was convicted, the Court of Appeals found that the search had violated the Fourth Amendment.
In February, the Supreme Court, in one of its first decisions joined by Justice Rebecca Bradley, reversed the Court of Appeals, finding the search was lawful because the police were acting in a "community caretaker," function, not investigating a crime.
In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Matalonis' attorneys, Mark Richards and Brian Dimmer of Racine, argue that doctrine began in the case of a car search, and that only Wisconsin and a few other states stretch it to cover someone's home. Two federal appellate circuits have adopted the expanded view, and four -- including the 7th Circuit, which covers Wisconsin -- have rejected it. That split usually increases the odds of the high court accepting a case.
The petition notes that when Kenosha police later sought a search warrant, after they'd already entered the locked bedroom and found the pot plant, they were turned down.
The trial judge denied Matalonis' motion to suppress the plant as illegally obtained evidence, agreeing with police that blood around the home - from the fight between the brothers -- was enough to leave officers concerned that someone might be injured in the locked room.
The dissent at the Wisconsin Supreme Court felt the community caretaker exception was being so broadly interpretted that it could swallow the entire Fourth Amendment.
It could be months before the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether take the case.