Federal Appeals Court upholds warrantless search for ‘community caretaking’

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  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld evidence collected after a warrantless search in a child pornography case from Kannapolis.
  • A unanimous Appeals Court panel agreed the search was permitted as part of police "community caretaking functions."

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld evidence collected through a warrantless search in a child pornography case from North Carolina. Appellate judges agreed that police were able to conduct the search as part of their “community caretaking functions.”

The case against Alexander Hillel Treisman stemmed from a May 2020 incident in Kannapolis. A local bank manager contacted police after noticing that a van had parked in the bank’s parking lot overnight.

Looking into the van’s front cabin, police spotted an assault rifle, handgun box, ammunition box, and a container of a product that could be used both for legal target shooting and to make explosives. A side door to the van’s rear cargo area was “slightly ajar,” according to the Appeals Court opinion Friday from Judge Marvin Quattlebaum.

Officers discussed the situation. “They all felt that, while not illegal, it was highly unusual for a van containing a high-powered rifle, a pistol, ammunition, and explosives in plain view to be left overnight and unattended in a bank parking lot.” The bank manager “expressed safety concerns to the officers about the contents of the van,” the 4th Circuit opinion continued.

Police also “questioned whether there might be someone inside the van needing help.” They noted that state law would permit a search addressing an “urgent medical situation.” After pulling the handle of the door that was already open, they saw more gun cases.

“[C}ombined with what they had seen in the front seat, the officers felt these additional guns in an abandoned, and unsecure, vehicle presented a public safety concern,” Quattlebaum wrote.

“All the officers worried that visible firearms, ammunition, and explosives might entice someone to break in and steal those items and use them to harm others,” according to the opinion. “The officers also agreed that they needed to safekeep the valuable items for the owner of the van.”

Police planned to take inventory of items in the van before towing the vehicle from the bank lot. A “large amount of cash banded and sealed in bank bags” caused officers to suspect the van owner of criminal activity. They secured search warrants and detained Treisman when he returned to the bank and asked about the van.

Later, FBI agents secured a federal search warrant for Treisman’s phone. “Though the phone included no evidence of criminal activity related to the guns, explosives or cash, it did contain child pornography images,” Quattlebaum wrote. “And based on those images, a grand jury indicted him for possession of child pornography and for transportation of child pornography.”

The defendant tried to suppress evidence tied to the search. “Treisman argued that the officers did not have an objectively reasonable belief that an emergency existed that required them to immediately enter the van without a warrant to see if anyone was in medical distress inside,” the 4th Circuit opinion explained. “He also argued that the officers did not have legal authority to tow the van. Last, he argued that the inventory search was a pretext for a warrantless criminal investigation.”

A trial judge rejected Treisman’s arguments. The trial court “held that the officers searched the back compartment of the van as a reasonable exercise of their community caretaker functions and not for the purpose of a criminal investigation.” The judge ruled “that the officers were presented with an unusual situation that raised significant public safety concerns.”

The defendant entered guilty pleas on the child pornography charges but reserved his right to appeal the judge’s ruling on the warrantless search. In his appeal, Treisman accused police of using a pretext to undertake a warrantless search that violated his constitutional rights.

“Treisman does not meaningfully challenge the district court’s alternative conclusion that the officers entered the back of the van to help ensure public safety,” Quattlebaum wrote. U.S. Supreme Court precedent “tells us that warrantless searches of vehicles in the interests of public safety carried out as part of officers’ community caretaking functions, if reasonable under the circumstances, do not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

“We find no error on the district court’s determination that the officers searched Treisman’s van in exercising those community caretaking functions and not as a pretext for a criminal investigatory search,” the 4th Circuit judges determined. “We likewise conclude that the district court did not err in holding the search was reasonable.”

Judges Robert Bruce King and James Wynn joined Quattlebaum’s opinion.