Supreme Court: Cops needed warrant to enter Puyallup-area home with decomposing body inside

VIDEO: South Hill man sentenced to nearly 22 years for murder of roommate

Michael Boisselle is sentenced to 21 years and eight months June 15, 2016 in Tacoma on a charge of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Brandon Zomalt.
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Michael Boisselle is sentenced to 21 years and eight months June 15, 2016 in Tacoma on a charge of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Brandon Zomalt.

The state Supreme Court reversed a Pierce County murder conviction Thursday, saying that officers’ searching of a man’s home without a warrant violated his constitutional rights.

Officers found the decomposing body of 30-year-old Brandon Zomalt inside the garage of the Puyallup-area duplex where he’d been living with Michael Boisselle. Jurors convicted Boisselle for his death, and he was sentenced to 21 years, eight months in prison.

The state Court of Appeals upheld Boisselle’s convictions for second-degree murder and second-degree unlawful gun possession.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision this week with a 5-4 opinion that sends the case back to Pierce County Superior Court for further proceedings.

“We hold that the officers’ warrantless search of Boisselle’s home was a pretext for a criminal investigation because the officers had significant suspicions of criminal activity, the officers’ entry was motivated by the desire to conduct an evidentiary search, and there was no present emergency,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority.

Boisselle, now 39, said at trial he let Zomalt move into his home and that Zomalt held him at gunpoint when Boisselle later told him he needed to move out. Boisselle said he managed to grab the weapon and fired when Zomalt came after him.

Prosecutors said Boisselle tried to burn carpet stained with Zomalt’s blood along an Auburn road, and weeks later detectives found Zomalt’s body at the duplex.

Court records give this account of what happened:

An Auburn detective responded Aug. 13, 2014 to a report of a man fleeing from a roadside fire. The detective arrived to find blood-soaked carpet and other debris in a charred pile.

DNA testing identified the victim as Brandon Zomalt, and Boisselle later became a suspect.

South Sound 911 got an anonymous call 6:38 p.m. Sept. 1 about a possible homicide at the Puyallup-area duplex, in which the caller said someone named Mike said he shot and killed someone in self-defense.

The Puyallup Police Department tip line got a similar call about a possible body in the duplex soon after.

Pierce County sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home about 6:50 p.m. and knocked, but no one answered.

The lights were off, the blinds and curtains were closed, and a dog was barking inside.

Two sergeants arrived soon after, and one walked around the duplex and noticed the smell of what he thought was either rotting garbage or a decomposing body coming from the garage.

The sergeants went to a sliding glass door at the back of the duplex, and the dog approached the glass and pushed the blinds aside.

That allowed authorities to see overturned furniture and carpet ripped out of the living room.

Neighbors told them someone named Mike lived there and that it was unusual they hadn’t seen anyone home for four or five days.

Officers determined the duplex was Boisselle’s last-known address, and a friend of Zomalt told them Zomalt had lived there with Boisselle.

The friend said he hadn’t seen Zomalt in several weeks.

After a phone call with the Auburn detective, who mentioned the roadside carpet fire, the sergeants decided to search the duplex without a warrant, “believing the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement justified entry,” Owens wrote in the majority opinion, which was signed by Justices Mary Fairhurst, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Barbara Madsen and Mary Yu.

Officers entered the duplex at 8:20 p.m., found Zomalt’s body in the garage and later got a warrant to search the rest of the home.

Boisselle was charged.

“Prior to trial, Boisselle moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of his home,” Owens wrote. “Boisselle argued that the officers’ warrantless search did not fall within the emergency aid function because the officers did not subjectively believe that someone was inside the home needing assistance for health and safety reasons.”

Superior Court Judge Jerry Costello denied that motion, concluding that the officers thought Zomalt or Boisselle “could be dead or injured and therefore require assistance for health or safety reasons,” court records say.

Entering the duplex wasn’t a pretext for an evidentiary search, and they weren’t motivated to go inside to investigate a potential crime, Costello decided.

Jurors convicted Boisselle, Boisselle appealed, and the Court of Appeals also said the officers had a reasonable belief that someone in the duplex needed help.

The majority of the state’s high court said the search wasn’t permissible.

“Viewing the totality of the circumstances, we are unconvinced that the officers’ search of Boisselle’s home was not a pretext for a criminal investigation,” Owens wrote. “.... Taken together, these facts demonstrate that the officers were suspicious, if not convinced, that a crime had taken place.”

Justices Debra Stephens, Charles Johnson, Charles Wiggins and Steven Gonzalez dissented.

“Despite having criminal suspicion, rendering assistance was an independent reason for their entry, as evidenced by the fact that, once they located and confirmed a dead body in the garage, they left and sought a warrant to search the home,” Stephens wrote in their opinion.

They said Boisselle’s conviction should be upheld.

“While not every situation involving a reported dead body may justify a warrantless home entry, we should recognize the seriousness of such a report, just as other courts have,” Stephens wrote. “We should evaluate the totality of the circumstances in each case and not reject as a matter of law application of the community caretaking function exception in this context.”

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Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.