Police Officers Exceed Scope of Welfare Check

State v. Ellis, No. 120,046 (Kan. Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2019)

Issue: Did a police officer exceed the scope of a permissible welfare check when he detained the person for whom the welfare check was called after he determined she did not need assistance?

Answer: Yes. The police officer exceeded the scope of a permissible welfare check because he took investigatory measures by detaining her after determining she was not in need of assistance.

Facts: Emporia police officers were called to perform a welfare check on Shelbie Ellis because she had been in a local convenience store’s restroom for forty-five minutes. After the police talked to Ellis and determined she did not need assistance, an officer asked for her driver’s license and called in a records check for warrants—even though he had no suspicion of criminal activity. The officers subsequently discovered Ellis had an outstanding warrant in Rice County. When the officers arrested her, they found methamphetamine and a pipe in her purse.

Discussion: The Kansas Court of Appeals found the officer’s conduct exceeded the scope of the welfare check. A welfare check occurs when an officer is called to check on a person’s safety and determine if they need assistance. Once an officer believes a person is no longer in need of assistance, any further actions constitute a seizure. The court held it was impermissible for the officer to detain Ellis after he determined she did not need assistance. Additionally, the officer went beyond the permissible scope of a welfare check by obtaining Ellis’s license to run a check for warrants. When an officer is checking for warrants, the officer is investigating criminal activity, which is impermissible during a welfare check. Therefore, Ellis’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure were violated. Further, because the evidence of the drugs and paraphernalia were discovered during the unlawful detainment, they were not admissible. 

Key Authorities:

State v. Gonzales, 141 P.3d 501, 509 (Kan. Ct. App. 2006).

State v. Messner, 419 P.3d 642, 648 (Kan. Ct. App. 2018).

State v. Manwarren, 440 P.3d 606, 612–13 (Kan. Ct. App. 2019).

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