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Law School Case Brief

Welsh v. Wisconsin - 466 U.S. 740, 104 S. Ct. 2091 (1984)


The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime. The right of officers to thrust themselves into a home is a grave concern, not only to the individual but to a society which chooses to dwell in reasonable security and freedom from surveillance. When the right of privacy must reasonably yield to the right of search is, as a rule, to be decided by a judicial officer, not by a policeman or government enforcement agent.


A witness observed a car being driven erratically and then swerving of the road. The driver left the car and walked away. Police officers responding to the scene checked the car's registration. Without obtaining a warrant, the police went to the home of the registered owner, gained entry and found defendant Edward G. Welsh lying in bed. Welsh was then arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant. After a hearing on his refusal to take a breathalyzer test, a Wisconsin trial court concluded that the arrest was lawful and that Welsh's refusal to take the test was unreasonable; his license was suspended. The suspension order was vacated by the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, which concluded that the warrantless arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed the court of appeals, holding that there were exigent circumstances in the case. Welsh was granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the warrantless arrest at Welsh's home violate his Fourth Amendment right?




The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin and  remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court held that the warrantless arrest of petitioner in his home violated U.S. Const. amend. IV because the State, although demonstrating probable cause to arrest, had not established the existence of exigent circumstances. Absent exigent circumstances, the Court ruled, a warrantless nighttime entry into the home of an individual to arrest him for a civil, non-jailable traffic offense was prohibited by the special protection afforded the individual in his home by the Fourth Amendment. The Court noted that application of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry was rarely appropriate when there was probable cause to believe that only a minor offense had been committed.

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