Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Community Caretaker" Makes Unlawful DWI Arrest

In Cherokee County, Texas, a small white pickup truck "was not seen violating any traffic law or exhibiting any signs that the driver was intoxicated or otherwise in distress, when [a police officer] saw, followed, and ultimately stopped it."  According to the officer, he stopped the vehicle "to check his current state, his welfare, [and] to make sure he is okay."  After all, he had recently received a call reporting an elderly driver passed out behind the wheel of a similar vehicle in a neighboring part of town.  In checking the driver's welfare, wouldn't you know it, the officer observed signs of intoxication and arrested the driver.

At the driver's subsequent trial for DWI, he moved to suppress the evidence obtained at the stop, complaining that the officer lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion.  As the 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) explained, however, probable cause may not have been required if the officer was exercising a "community caretaker" function.
In certain circumstances, a police officer may reasonably seize an individual through the exercise of the community caretaking function even without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that an offense has been committed.  As part of an officer’s duty to serve and protect, an officer may stop and assist an individual whom a reasonable person, given the totality of the circumstances, would believe is in need of help.  This exception to the warrant requirement has narrow applicability.  The community caretaking exception cannot be used if the officer is primarily motivated by a different purpose, such as law enforcement.
The problem in this case, as the Court points out, was that the driver did not objectively appear to be in distress, nor did he objectively appear to pose a danger to himself or others.  Accordingly, the Court held that the narrow community caretaker exception did not justify the officer's stop and thus, the driver's Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

See Travis v. State