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Firefighters entered Mark Slaughter’s townhouse unit after receiving a call from his next-door neighbor; the neighbor had discovered water running between her wall and his. The neighbor knocked at Slaughter’s door, but after receiving no response, she contacted the property management company, who told her they did not have a key or contact number for Slaughter, but suggested she call the fire department. The firefighters first knocked on Slaughter’s door, then, when no one answered, entered his unit through an open window to investigate the water issue. A firefighter went to the basement to turn off the water in Slaughter’s apartment and discovered marijuana plants; after leaving the apartment, the firefighter informed the police. Officers obtained a search warrant, executed it, and seized the marijuana.
Slaughter was charged with “manufacturing” more than 20 but less than 200 marijuana plants. He brought a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the firefighter unlawfully entered his apartment without probable cause, and that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The prosecutor responded that the search was justified under the “community caretaker” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement. Under the community caretaker doctrine, where police officers discover evidence of a crime while performing “caretaking” functions, such as aiding people in distress, that evidence is often admissible despite the lack of a search warrant; People v Davis, 442 Mich 1, 20; 497 NW2d 910 (1993).
After holding an evidentiary hearing, the trial court dismissed the charges. The evidence should be suppressed, the court said, because the community caretaker exception to the search warrant requirement did not cover “anything related to the investigation of a possible fire hazard.”
The prosecutor appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the firefighter’s actions were clearly within the community caretaker exception, and that the trial court erred in suppressing the evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a split, unpublished opinion. The majority concluded that searches performed by firefighters might fit within the scope of the community caretaker exception, but that there was not adequate information in the record to conclude that the firefighters acted reasonably in entering Slaughter’s apartment. The dissenting Court of Appeals judge would have held that the firefighters acted reasonably and within the parameters of the community caretaker exception. The prosecutor appeals.