This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).







State of Minnesota,





Tracy S. Ellefson,




Filed April 17, 2007


Halbrooks, Judge



Isanti County District Court

File No. K3-03-992



Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Thomas R. Ragatz, Assistant Attorney General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN  55101;


Jeffrey R. Edblad, Isanti County Attorney, Isanti County Courthouse, 555 18th Avenue Southwest, Cambridge, MN 55008 (for respondent)


John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Sara L. Martin, Assistant Public Defender, 2221 University Avenue SE, Suite 425, Minneapolis, MN 55414  (for appellant)



            Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge; Toussaint, Chief Judge; and Ross, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


            Appellant challenges the district court’s decision not to suppress evidence seized by law enforcement after a warrantless search of his home, arguing that no exception to the warrant requirement justified entry.  Because we conclude that law enforcement could have reasonably believed that the victim of a recent or ongoing assault was inside appellant’s home and in need of immediate aid, we affirm.


            On August 12, 2003, Isanti County law enforcement responded to a call in Isanti.  The deputies were notified that dispatch had received a 911 call from a caller identifying herself as “Susan,” who informed the operator that the homeowner, appellant Tracy Scott Ellefson, had assaulted Kelly Wakefield by dragging her around the yard by her hair and, at one point, holding a knife to her throat. 

When the operator asked the caller how long ago the assault had happened, the caller stated that she had driven by ten minutes earlier.  The operator questioned the caller about whether appellant had a vehicle he could leave in, to which the caller responded, “I know one thing, he hates cops, and he’s . . . really mean.”  The conversation continued:

OPERATOR:              Do you have any idea why [appellant] is upset?

CALLER:                   No.

                        . . . .

OPERATOR:              And you saw him with a knife to her neck?

CALLER:                   Yeah.

OPERATOR:              Okay.

CALLER:                   He had a knife to her neck and he was dragging her around the yard by the hair.

OPERATOR:              Okay.

CALLER:                   And then he was trying to take her shirt off or it was all bloody.

OPERATOR:              Okay.

CALLER:                   And then he was trying to take her shirt off and she was sitting in her car trying to get away and I could hear her keys fly.

OPERATOR:              Okay.  So she was sitting in her car, what kind of car does she have?

CALLER:                   A white Grand Am.


It was later discovered that Wakefield, herself, was the caller. 

            Upon arriving at appellant’s residence, the officers did not see anyone out in the yard or any vehicles in the driveway.  They checked the perimeter of the home but did not find the victim or the suspect.  The officers then decided to check for appellant or the victim inside the home, but the door was locked.  When the officers attempted to enter the home, appellant came to the door.  The officers ordered him to lie on his stomach while he was handcuffed.  The officers proceeded to search the home but did not find the victim.  But because there was an active warrant for appellant’s arrest, the officers escorted appellant to a patrol vehicle for transport to the Isanti County jail.  

Wakefield returned to appellant’s residence as the officers were leaving and spoke with investigators.  She stated that appellant had assaulted her, that she had been bleeding from her right nostril, and that she had bled all over a shirt that was located in appellant’s residence.  Wakefield also stated that appellant had pulled her around the yard by her hair but stated that appellant did not have a knife to her throat.  Finally, Wakefield told the officers that she had bled inside the vehicle but that appellant had wiped the vehicle down.

            While booking appellant at the Isanti County jail, officers conducted a pat search, which revealed a small aluminum-foil package containing white powdery substance.  The substance tested positive for methamphetamine. 

Appellant was charged with two counts of misdemeanor domestic assault in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.2242, subds. 1(1), 1(2) (2002), and one count of felony fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance in violation of Minn. Stat. § 152.025, subd. 2(1) (2002).  But the domestic-assault charges were later dismissed after Wakefield recanted.      

            Appellant subsequently moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the police did not have probable cause to enter his home without a search warrant.  Specifically, appellant asserted that because the officers did not see any signs of an altercation outside the residence or a vehicle or anything suspicious, the officers’ entry was unlawful.[1]  The state submitted the recording of Wakefield’s 911 call as well as police reports written by Deputy Lisa Lovering and Investigator Kory Erickson.  The district court denied appellant’s motion to dismiss, concluding that law enforcement had probable cause to search the premises, to enter appellant’s home, and to arrest appellant.  Through a Lothenbach procedure, the district court subsequently found appellant guilty of felony fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance in violation of Minn. Stat. § 152.025, subd. 2(1).  The district court sentenced appellant to 21 months in prison but later corrected appellant’s sentence to 20 months.  This appeal follows. 


            Appellant challenges his conviction, arguing that the district court erred when it denied his motion to suppress evidence seized after a warrantless search of his home because no exception to the warrant requirement justified entry.  Specifically, appellant contends that the state failed to provide sufficient evidence to satisfy either the emergency-aid or exigent-circumstances exceptions to the warrant requirement.

            Because the facts of this case are not in dispute, this court should “simply analyze the facts and determine if, as a matter of law, the officers’ actions were justified.”  State v. Halla-Poe, 468 N.W.2d 570, 572 (Minn. App. 1991).  “We review pretrial motions to suppress evidence by independently considering the facts to determine whether the district court erred in its decision.”  State v. Kouba, 709 N.W.2d 299, 304 (Minn. App. 2006).  Similarly, we review the district court’s determinations of probable cause as it relates to searches and seizures de novo.  State v. Lemieux, 726 N.W.2d 783, 787 (Minn. 2007).  “The district court’s findings of fact should be reviewed for clear error.”  Id. 

            The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution guarantee individuals the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government of “persons, houses, papers and effects.”  Under the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures conducted inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable, subject to a few exceptions.  Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586-87, 100 S. Ct. 1371, 1380 (1980); State v. Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d 218, 221-22 (Minn. 1992).  If such an entry is made without a warrant and an exception does not apply, the fruits of the entry must be suppressed.  Id. at 222. 

Under the emergency-aid exception, law-enforcement officers “may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.”  Lemieux, 726 N.W.2d at 787-88 (quotation omitted). 

In applying the emergency exception the reviewing court should follow two principles: first, that the burden of proof is on the state to show that the circumstances meet the emergency exception, and second, that an objective standard should be applied to determine the reasonableness of the officer’s belief that there was an emergency.


Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d at 223.  In determining whether the actions of law enforcement “meet an objective standard of reasonableness the court should ask whether with the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or search, would a person of reasonable caution believe that the action taken was appropriate.”  Id.  In addition, “[a]ny search of a residence following a warrantless entry must be limited by the type of emergency involved.  It cannot be used as the occasion for a general voyage of discovery unrelated to the purpose of the entry.”  Lemieux, 726 N.W.2d at 788 (quotation omitted). 

We are guided in our analysis of the applicability of this exception by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lemieux.  In Lemieux, law-enforcement officers decided to investigate a residence that was in close proximity to the location where a recent homicide had occurred.  Id. at 785.  As they approached the home, the officers noticed that the screen on one of the front windows had been torn loose and that the window was pushed up.  Id.  The officers also saw that the door was slightly open and not latched.  Id.  In addition, the officers could hear music playing inside the house, but believed that it sounded like a CD was skipping.  Id.  One of the officers began pounding on the door, and another officer shouted the name of the homeowner, calling for her to answer the door.  Id.  While the officers were doing this, a next-door neighbor approached the officers and told one of them that he had heard someone singing inside of the unit that night.  Id.  Concerned that a burglary had taken place, the officers contacted their supervisor, who informed them that they should do a “health and welfare” check of the home for possible injured occupants, but that they were not to search the home for anything other than injured persons.  Id.  During the check of the residence, officers saw the murder victim’s electronic benefit-transfer card in plain view.  Id. at 785-86.   

After the sweep search was conducted, a search warrant was obtained to search the residence.  Id. at 786.  While executing the search warrant, law enforcement found additional evidence incriminating the defendant.  Id.  The defendant was subsequently arrested and later indicted by a grand jury for first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and second-degree murder.  Id. at 786-87.  Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the warrantless sweep search of the residence.  Id. at 787.  Following a hearing, the district court denied the defendant’s motion, determining that the warrantless entry was justified under the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement.  Id.  The jury subsequently found defendant guilty as charged and sentenced him to life in prison.  Id. 

On appeal, defendant challenged the admission of the evidence derived from the warrantless sweep search of the residence.  Id.  The supreme court affirmed the district court’s decision to deny defendant’s suppression motion, concluding that

the police entry of the residence in close proximity to a brutal and seemingly random homicide was justified under the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement because the officers had reasonable grounds to believe that a burglary was in progress or had recently occurred, the entry was motivated primarily to look for possible victims, and the scope of the search was limited to the emergency. 


Id. at 790.  The supreme court cited to the district court’s findings that

the officers’ purpose in going to the residence was to find out if persons using the premises might have seen or heard something useful to the ongoing homicide investigation and not to gain entry to search for evidence.  But once the officers were at the residence, they noted that the window screen was torn loose, the window was pushed up, the door was unlatched, and there was music inside that was skipping; the officers announced their presence, pounded loudly on the door and yelled for someone to answer the door, and they learned that someone had been in the residence that night.  The officers were concerned about a “forced entry situation” or burglary and obtained limited authorization for immediate entry to look for possible victims.  


Id. at 789 (footnote omitted). 

            We are presented with similar facts here.  When Wakefield, posing as “Susan,” called 911, she gave dispatch the following information: (1) that she had seen appellant dragging the victim around the yard by her hair, holding a knife to her neck; (2) that the victim’s shirt was “all bloody”; and (3) that when the victim got in her car and attempted to drive away she “could hear her keys fly.”  Wakefield also told dispatch that appellant was “crazy” and “really mean.”  Based on this information, officers were dispatched to the scene.  When they arrived at appellant’s residence, the officers did not see the victim or a suspect in the yard and did not see the vehicle identified by Wakefield in the 911 call.  When the deputies attempted to open the front door, they discovered that it was locked. 

Based on these facts, we conclude that the officers had a reasonable belief that Wakefield may have been inside the house, suffering from life-threatening injuries and in need of immediate aid, or that the assault had continued in the residence.  The officers had enough information to believe that a legitimate medical emergency existed.  Their purpose in entering the residence was not merely an excuse to investigate and arrest appellant, but rather to search for the assault victim and determine if that person was in need of medical assistance.  In addition, after searching the residence and failing to find a victim, the officers did not continue to search the residence for other evidence of wrongdoing.  Instead, the scope of the search was limited to the emergency.  Therefore, we conclude that the district court did not err by denying appellant’s motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause and unlawful entry of the residence.   

In addition to the emergency-aid exception, the police may also make a warrantless entry into a dwelling in order to make a felony arrest if they have probable cause and exigent circumstances.  Payton, 445 U.S. at 588-89, 100 S. Ct. at 1381; State v. Storvick, 428 N.W.2d 55, 61 (Minn. 1988).  As a general rule, there are two types of tests for exigent circumstances: (1) single-factor exigent circumstances, and (2) a totality-of-the-circumstances test.  State v. Gray, 456 N.W.2d 251, 256 (Minn. 1990).  Examples of situations where a single factor alone can create exigent circumstances include:  (1) hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, (2) imminent destruction or removal of evidence, (3) protection of human life, (4) likely escape of the suspect, and (5) fire.  Id.  When none of the single-factor exigent circumstances is present, this court weighs the following factors, set forth in Dorman v. United States, 435 F.2d 385, 392-93 (D.C. Cir. 1970), in evaluating the totality of the circumstances:

(a) whether a grave or violent offense is involved; (b) whether the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed; (c) whether there is strong probable cause connecting the suspect to the offense; (d) whether police have strong reason to believe the suspect is on the premises; (e) whether it is likely the suspect will escape if not swiftly apprehended; and (f) whether peaceable entry was made. 


Gray, 456 N.W.2d at 256 (citations omitted). 

            Here, law enforcement entered the residence, in part, to locate the assault victim, whose life they reasonably believed was in peril.  As noted above, this single factor alone supports a finding of exigent circumstances.  See Warden, Md. Penitentiary v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 298-99, 87 S. Ct. 1642, 1645-46 (1967) (holding that warrantless entry into residence was justified by “‘the exigencies of the situation’” when delay in the course of investigation “would gravely endanger [officers’] lives or the lives of others”). 

            We recognize that courts are extremely hesitant to hold that exigent circumstances permit a warrantless entry into a home to arrest for an offense of lesser magnitude than a felony.  See Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 753, 104 S. Ct. 2091, 2099 (1984) (stating “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”); Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d at 223-24 (holding that the warrantless entry into defendant’s home by officers was not justified by exigent circumstances because even if officers had “probable cause to arrest [defendant] for the offenses he was later charged with, those offenses [we]re misdemeanors”); Halla-Poe, 468 N.W.2d at 574 (stating “[w]e recognize a warrantless in-home arrest for a nonfelonious offense is rarely nonviolative of the fourth amendment.  On the rare occasions where such an arrest will be upheld, the facts must be carefully scrutinized and narrowly construed”).  Appellant here was eventually charged with felony fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance and two counts of misdemeanor assault.[2] But we note that our focus in determining whether exigent circumstances existed is not on the actual crime charged, but rather on the severity of the crime that law enforcement reasonably believed to have been committed at the time of the entry.  See Welsh, 466 U.S. at 752-53, 104 S. Ct. at 2099 (noting that the exigent-circumstances exception is limited to the investigation of serious crimes and 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”); Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d at 223 (holding that exigent circumstances were not present when officer “had no reason to believe a crime had been committed” when he arrived at home); Storvick, 428 N.W.2d at 59 (holding that exigent circumstances justified search when “[t]he officers had strong probable cause to believe that the very serious felony offense of either criminal vehicular operation or criminal vehicular operation resulting in death had been committed” when they decided to enter a residence without a warrant).  Because the officers reasonably believed that the victim’s life was in peril and that a serious crime had taken place when they decided to enter appellant’s residence, we conclude that the officers’ entry was also justified by exigent circumstances. 


[1] Appellant also took issue with the fact that Deputy Erickson did not attend his omnibus hearing, arguing that appellant could not make a complete record in Deputy Erickson’s absence. 

[2]  The misdemeanor-assault charges were likely the result of Wakefield’s statement to law enforcement after they had arrested appellant that he did not use a knife during the assault.