For those of you unlucky enough to suffer through the recent in-service training that I did on search and seizure, you know the contempt that I have held for many of the recent CCA opinions on the community caretaker doctrine (or lack thereof). Apparently the Tennessee Supreme Court heard my rant and rewarded us all with an excellent decision in State v. Kenneth McCormick, — S.W. 3d — (2016), that helps restore a little of the balance to the world by reversing the CCA decision in Moats that held community caretaking was not an exception to federal and state constitutional warrant requirements.
Thanks again to Deputy DA Gene Perrin for his summary of the opinion. The full text of the opinion can be found here:
Trooper on routine patrol at 2:45 a.m. observes a vehicle parked in the roadway in front of a grocery store that was not open. Upon approaching the car to do a welfare check, the trooper realized that the car was parked in such a manner that it blocked 75% of the entrance into the parking lot resulting in the left rear wheel protruding partially into the roadway. The car’s engine was running and its lights were on. The trooper parked on the roadway behind the car and activated his patrol car’s rear facing blue lights for safety reasons so that neither his own patrol car nor the suspect vehicle would be rear ended. Upon approaching the car on the driver’s side, the trooper observed the defendant slumped over the steering wheel, despite a blaring radio, running engine, and activated headlights. After taps on the window failed to arouse the defendant, the trooper opened the door and in so doing, detected a strong odor of alcohol on the defendant’s breath and person as well as observed an open beer bottle in the center console. The trooper tried to wake the defendant for about a minute before the defendant responded. At that time, the defendant was asked to step out of the vehicle and he was ultimately arrested for DUI. The defense moved to suppress arguing an unlawful seizure of the defendant. The trial court denied the motion finding the trooper’s testimony at all stages had been consistent that he approached the defendant’s car to conduct a welfare check and he had turned on his rear blue lights for safety reasons. The DUI conviction was ultimately appealed to the TN Supreme Court.
1) The TN Supreme Court overruled Moats and held that the community caretaker doctrine is an exception to the state and federal constitutional warrant requirements and as such, will justify a warrantless seizure of an automobile when an officer is acting as a community caretaker.
2) For the purpose of this appeal, the Supreme Court presumed that the trooper’s actions in parking behind the defendant and activating his blue lights constituted a seizure. The Court went on to note the community caretaker doctrine is an exception to the warrant requirements because modern society expects police officers to fulfill many duties and interact with citizens in a number of ways beyond investigating criminal conduct. Such activities include a general safety and welfare role for police officers in helping citizens in peril or who may otherwise be in need of some form of assistance. The Court did caution that the caretaker role would be much more limited in a home or office than when dealing with vehicles that are movable and often contain in plain view evidence and fruits of criminal activity.
3) The community caretaking exception will justify a warrantless seizure so long as the State establishes (1) the officer possessed specific and articulable facts which, viewed objectively and in the totality of the circumstances, reasonably warranted a conclusion that a community caretaking action was needed, such as the possibility of a person in need of assistance or the existence of a potential threat to public safety; and (2) the officer’s behavior and the scope of the intrusion were reasonably restrained and tailored to the community caretaking need.
4) A trial court must carefully consider the facts of each case including the nature and level of distress exhibited by the citizen, the location, the time of day, the accessibility and availability of assistance other than the officer and the risk of danger if the officer provides no assistance. The officer’s subjective motivation is irrelevant since the law does not require an officer to suppress his or her training and investigatory experience when carrying out the community caretaking function. It should be noted in this case that the Trooper did testify he called for a municipal officer to come to the scene to assist him in his welfare check of the driver (defendant).
5) The Supreme Court found that the facts of the case warranted the trooper’s conclusion that a welfare check (community caretaking action) was necessary and appropriate. The facts confronting the trooper suggested either a person in need of assistance or a potential threat to public safety, or both. Additionally, the trooper’s behavior and scope of intrusion was reasonably restrained and tailored to his community caretaking need. The defendant was slumped over the steering wheel of a car partially protruding in the roadway. Given the time, location, and lack of assistance from other sources, the Court ruled the risk of danger had the officer provided no assistance was substantial and that the officer would be derelict in his duty as a police officer had he failed to take steps to determine the defendant’s welfare.
6) The Court further found that by the time the trooper asked the defendant to step out of his vehicle, he possessed at least reasonable suspicion that the defendant was under the influence of an intoxicant thus allowing the follow-up DUI investigation. Conviction affirmed.