By Gretchen Schuldt
Winnebago County deputy sheriffs failed to ask three different people about any injuries suffered by the driver in a one-car accident, then claimed they did not need a warrant when they conducted a search at his home because they were concerned for his well-being.
The argument failed to convince a state appeals judge.
"While the officers indicated concern for (Troy) Kettlewell’s well-being, they did not ask any of these people about Kettlewell’s well-being or to assist in determining if he needed immediate help," District 2 Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Neubauer wrote. "Their questions were largely focused on his drinking and driving."
Neubauer's ruling reversed Winnebago Circuit Judge Daniel J. Bissett, who had ruled against Kettlewell's motion to suppress evidence obtained in the search.
According to Neubauer's opinion:
A witness reported to authorities seeing a man leaving a car in a ditch. The man's speech was slurred and he may have been intoxicated, but did not appear to be injured, the witness said.
Deputy Michael Huth, upon learning that the car was registered to Kettlewell, went first to the nearby home of Kettlewell's cousin to see if he was there. Kettlewell was not, but the cousin called him to let him know police were looking for him.
Then Huth went to the accident scene, Neubauer wrote.
"Upon inspection of the vehicle, he noted the following: no broken glass, no window or windshield damage, no blood visible on or near the vehicle, and no other indications of personal injury within the vehicle," she wrote. "Huth saw a half-full bottle of beer and a prescription medicine container with Kettlewell’s name."
The side air bags had gone off, but the front ones did not.
Tracy, Kettlewell's live-in girlfriend and co-owner of the car, was there when Huth got to the accident site. Tracy said Kettlewell had been driving the car. (Kettlewell later said she picked him up after the crash to take him home.)
"Huth did not see any blood in the snow, nor did he note anything problematic about the footprint trail leading away from the car," Neubauer wrote. "Tracy did not state Kettlewell was injured, nor did Huth inquire as to Kettlewell’s well-being."
Two other deputies, Marcus Schuh and Nathan Olig, went to Kettlewell's house. The dispatcher told them Kettlewell might be intoxicated.
They knocked loudly on the front door of the house and, receiving no answer, Schuh decided to walk around the building. He peered into every window as he went. He saw a young girl through one, who turned out to be Kettlewell's 14-year-old daughter.
She "testified that she had been taking a shower when she heard loud banging at the front door," Neubauer wrote. "(She) got out of the shower, put on a robe, and when she got to the room near the front door, she saw a strange man looking in at her through a window, prompting her to run screaming from the room."
Schuh eventually spotted Kettlewell in a bedroom, apparently sleeping with his boots on.
Schuh repeatedly knocked on a glass door to get Kettlewell's attention. Kettlewell acknowledged the deputy and met both men at the front door.
Both Schuh and Olig asked whether Kettlewell had been driving the vehicle and how much he had to drink before asking any questions about his well-being.
Kettlewell admitted driving the vehicle and failed sobriety tests given by the deputies. He was charged with fourth offense operating while intoxicated.
The 14-year-old "testified that she had been taking a shower when she heard loud banging at the front door. (She) got out of the shower, put on a robe, and when she got to the room near the front door, she saw a strange man looking in at her through a window, prompting her to run screaming from the room."
Home searches are especially protected under the U.S. Constitution and the state conceded that the deputies' entry onto Kettlewell's property and peering into his windows constituted a search, Neubauer said.
The state did not, however, show there was an objective reason to believe a member of the public needed assistance and so failed to meet the requirements for a warrantless search under the "community caretaker" exception to the Fourth Amendment, Neubauer said.
The deputies could have asked Kettlewell's girlfriend, daughter, or cousin whether he was injured, but did not. There was no blood on the snow, and the front airbags of the car did not deploy in the accident.
"The officers also could have attempted to reach the residents in the home with phone numbers dispatch had available," Neubauer wrote. "After the daughter was seen, the officers could have recommenced knocking on the door to ask her whether Kettlewell needed help. They could have asked Kettlewell when he was located through the patio doors whether he needed help."
None of that happened.
"We conclude the public’s interest in the intrusion was minimal, and as such, any discernable community caretaker function was unreasonably exercised," she said.
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