Appeals court ruling upholds warrantless search

PHOENIX - The Arizona Court of Appeals on Tuesday, June 2, upheld a Paulden woman's drug convictions based on a warrantless search that happened when sheriff's deputies were mistakenly sent to her home in response to a "911 hang-up call."

On July 25, 2012, two Yavapai County Sheriff's deputies responded to a 911 call which was immediately disconnected, and which the operator could not re-connect. The call, from a cell phone, was traced to two possible addresses, about two miles apart.

Deputies arrived at Starr Bennett's home on Big Chino Road, and, according to court records, were not advised that the caller had called back to say that the 911 call was a mistake.

The deputies, who tried to make contact with Bennett, did not know what might have happened, and walked around her home, looking for clues. Before they encountered Bennett, the deputies opened a gate to her backyard, and found three marijuana plants on the back patio, growing in pots. Deputies found Bennett in an outbuilding, questioned her about the 911 call and the plants, and she told them she had marijuana for medicinal purposes, but did not have a card.

"When asked if she had any marijuana in the house, she invited the deputies in and gave them all she had," a document filed by the prosecution said.

Bennett was charged with production of marijuana, possession of less than two pounds of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

She requested a bench trial, and, on Aug. 11, 2014, was found guilty by Superior Court Judge Cele Hancock and sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation.

She appealed the decision, and the three-judge appellate panel agreed with Hancock.

Noting that the deputies treated the 911 hang-up as an emergency, Judge Randall M. Howe wrote that, "The emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement permits a warrantless entry into a dwelling when police officers reasonably believe that someone within is in need of immediate aid or assistance."

"Only after they spoke to Bennett - who was cooperative, kind, and pleasant - were they satisfied that no emergency was afoot," he continued.

"Because, under the circumstances presented her, the emergency aid exception justified the deputies' warrantless search, the search was lawful," Howe wrote. Bennett, contacted by phone Thursday, June 4, said she would continue to fight the decision.

"You can't let it go," she said.

Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy.

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