Welsh v. Wisconsin

466 U.S. 740

Case Year: 1984

Case Ruling: 6-3, Vacated and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Brennan

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Marshall, O'Connor, Powell, Stevens


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Blackmun


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: White

Joiner(s): Rehnquist

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Burger


3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


At about 9:00 P.M. on April 24, 1978, Randy Jablonic observed a car being driven erratically. The car eventually swerved off the road and came to a stop in an open field. No damage seemed to have been done. Fearing that the driver might need assistance or might attempt to return to the road, Jablonic drove his truck out to behind the car. When another passerby stopped, Jablonic asked her to call the police. Before the police arrived, the driver of the car got out and asked Jablonic for a ride home. When Jablonic suggested that they wait for the police, the man walked away.

A few minutes later the police arrived. Jablonic told them what had happened, and indicated that the man was either under the influence of alcohol or ill. The officer checked the motor vehicle registration of the car and discovered that Edward G. Welsh was the owner. Since the home address listed was just a short distance away, the officer went to the Welsh home. When Welsh's stepdaughter answered the door, the police officer walked into the house. It is unclear from the record if she gave the officer permission to enter. The officer found Welsh lying naked on a bed in an upstairs room. The officer placed him under arrest for driving under the influence of an intoxicant. Welsh was taken to the police station, where he refused to take a breath-analysis test.

Welsh was charged with two separate offenses: refusal, without cause, to take the breath analysis test and driving under the influence. He alleged that the police had no authority to enter his home without a warrant and therefore his arrest was invalid. That being the case, he claimed, it was reasonable for him to refuse to take the intoxication test. The state supreme court held that the police officer had had cause to enter the home, that the arrest was valid, and that therefore Welsh had been obliged to take the breath-analysis test.



Payton v. New York (1980), held that, absent probable cause and exigent circumstances, warrantless arrests in the home are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. But the Court in that case explicitly refused "to consider the sort of emergency or dangerous situation, described in our cases as 'exigent circumstances,' that would justify a warrantless entry into a home for the purpose of either arrest or search."... Certiorari was granted in this case to decide at least one aspect of the unresolved question: whether, and if so under what circumstances, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the police from making a warrantless night entry of a person's home in order to arrest him for a nonjailable traffic offense....

It is axiomatic that the "physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed." United States v. United States District Court (1972). And a principal protection against unnecessary intrusions into private dwellings is the warrant requirement imposed by the Fourth Amendment on agents of the government who seek to enter the home for purposes of search or arrest.... It is not surprising, therefore, that the Court has recognized, as "a `basic principle of Fourth Amendment law[,]' that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable." Payton v. New York....

Consistently with these long-recognized principles, the Court decided in Payton v. New York that warrantless felony arrests in the home are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, absent probable cause and exigent circumstances.... At the same time, the Court declined to consider the scope of any exception for exigent circumstances that might justify warrantless home arrests, ... thereby leaving to the lower courts the initial application of the exigent-circumstances exception. Prior decisions of this Court, however, have emphasized that exceptions to the warrant requirement are "few in number and carefully delineated," United States v. United States District Court, and that the police bear a heavy burden when attempting to demonstrate an urgent need that might justify warrantless searches or arrests. Indeed, the Court has recognized only a few such emergency conditions [for example, hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, destruction of evidence, ongoing fire]....

Our hesitation in finding exigent circumstances, especially when warrantless arrests in the home are at issue, is particularly appropriate when the underlying offense for which there is probable cause to arrest is relatively minor. Before agents of the government may invade the sanctity of the home, the burden is on the government to demonstrate exigent circumstances that overcome the presumption of unreasonableness that attaches to all warrantless home entries.... When the government's interest is only to arrest for a minor offense, that presumption of unreasonableness is difficult to rebut, and the government usually should be allowed to make such arrests only with a warrant issued upon probable cause by a neutral and detached magistrate....

Consistently with this approach, the lower courts have looked to the nature of the underlying offense as an important factor to be considered in the exigent-circumstances calculus....

For example, courts have permitted warrantless home arrests for major felonies if identifiable exigencies, independent of the gravity of the offense, existed at the time of the arrest.... But of those courts addressing the issue, most have refused to permit warrantless home arrests for nonfelonious crimes.... The approach taken in these cases should not be surprising. Indeed, without necessarily approving any of these particular holdings or considering every possible factual situation, we note that it is difficult to conceive of a warrantless home arrest that would not be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment when the underlying offense is extremely minor. We therefore conclude that the common-sense approach utilized by most lower courts is required by the Fourth Amendment prohibition on "unreasonable searches and seizures," and hold that an important factor to be considered when determining whether any exigency exists is the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made. Moreover, although no exigency is created simply because there is probable cause to believe that a serious crime has been committed, see Payton, application of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense, such as the kind at issue in this case, has been committed.

Application of this principle to the facts of the present case is relatively straightforward. The petitioner was arrested in the privacy of his own bedroom for a noncriminal, traffic offense. The State attempts to justify the arrest by relying on the hot-pursuit doctrine, on the threat to public safety, and on the need to preserve evidence of the petitioner's blood-alcohol level. On the facts of this case, however, the claim of hot pursuit is unconvincing because there was no immediate or continuous pursuit of the petitioner from the scene of a crime. Moreover, because the petitioner had already arrived home, and had abandoned his car at the scene of the accident, there was little remaining threat to the public safety. Hence, the only potential emergency claimed by the State was the need to ascertain the petitioner's blood-alcohol level.

Even assuming, however, that the underlying facts would support a finding of this exigent circumstance, mere similarity to other cases involving the imminent destruction of evidence is not sufficient. The State of Wisconsin has chosen to classify the first offense for driving while intoxicated as a noncriminal, civil forfeiture offense for which no imprisonment is possible.... This is the best indication of the State's interest in precipitating an arrest, and is one that can be easily identified both by the courts and by officers faced with a decision to arrest. Given this expression of the State's interest, a warrantless home arrest cannot be upheld simply because evidence of the petitioner's blood-alcohol level might have dissipated while the police obtained a warrant. To allow a warrantless home entry on these facts would be to approve unreasonable police behavior that the principles of the Fourth Amendment will not sanction.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin let stand a warrantless, nighttime entry into the petitioner's home to arrest him for a civil traffic offense. Such an arrest, however, is clearly prohibited by the special protection afforded the individual in his home by the Fourth Amendment. The petitioner's arrest was therefore invalid, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


... [T]he fact that Wisconsin has chosen to punish the first offense for driving under the influence with a fine rather than a prison term does not demand the conclusion that the State's interest in punishing first offenders is insufficiently substantial to justify warrantless in-home arrests under exigent circumstances. As the Supreme Court of Wisconsin observed, "[t]his is a model case demonstrating the urgency involved in arresting the suspect in order to preserve evidence of the statutory violation."... We have previously recognized that "the percentage of alcohol in the blood begins to diminish shortly after drinking stops, as the body functions to eliminate it from the system." Schmerber v. California (1966). Moreover, a suspect could cast substantial doubt on the validity of a blood or breath test by consuming additional alcohol upon arriving at his home. In light of the promptness with which the officers reached Welsh's house, therefore, I would hold that the need to prevent the imminent and ongoing destruction of evidence of a serious violation of Wisconsin's traffic laws provided an exigent circumstance justifying the warrantless in-home arrest....

I respectfully dissent.