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Traffic Stops and the Community Caretaker Doctrine

In the 2014 case State v. Smathers, the North Carolina Court of Appeals formally recognized the community caretaker doctrine as a basis for making a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion. Prior to that, the community caretaker doctrine was used only in the context of impounding abandoned vehicles in North Carolina. With the Smathers decision, North Carolina joined a large majority of states who had used the community caretaker doctrine as an exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment.

The court in Smathers provided a history of the community caretaker doctrine, which was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973). In Cady, the Court permitted a warrantless search of the defendant’s impounded car reasoning that the car was damaged and a nuisance on the highway. When the defendant was unable to arrange for removal of the car from the highway, the standard procedure of impounding vehicles was reasonable to promote public safety. The Court stated that

Because of the extensive regulation of motor vehicles and traffic, and also because of the frequency with which a vehicle can become disabled or involved in an accident on public highways, the extent of police-citizen contact involving automobiles will be substantially greater than police-citizen contact in a home or office. Some such contacts will occur because the officer may believe the operator has violated a criminal statute, but many more will not be of that nature. Local police officers, unlike federal officers, frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.

After the Cady decision, North Carolina courts applied the community caretaker doctrine solely in the context of impounding abandoned vehicles. However, other states expanded the application of the doctrine in order “to give police officers the flexibility to help citizens in need or protect the public even if the prerequisite suspicion of criminal activity which would otherwise be necessary for a constitutional intrusion is nonexistent.”

Now that we have a little history on the community caretaker doctrine, let’s look at the facts involved in Smathers. A police officer was traveling behind the defendant, who was not violating any traffic laws or behaving otherwise suspiciously. The officer observed a large animal run out in front of the defendant’s car, which struck the animal and then bounced and sparked as it scraped the road. The officer then activated his blue lights solely to make sure that the defendant and her car were okay. The defendant did not immediately stop, so the officer turned on his siren. The defendant then proceeded to travel for more than a mile before stopping.

The officer approached the vehicle to make sure that the defendant was okay. During the conversation, he observed an odor of alcohol and that the defendant had red, glassy eyes and slurred speech. After the defendant failed roadside sobriety tests, the defendant was arrested for impaired driving. The defendant made a motion to suppress evidence from the stop arguing that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop her car. That motion was denied, and the defendant pled guilty to DWI. She then appealed her motion to suppress.

In deciding to adopt the community caretaker doctrine as an exception to a warrant requirement, the court noted that

The doctrine recognizes that, in our communities, law enforcement personnel are expected to engage in activities and interact with citizens in a number of ways beyond the investigation of criminal conduct. Such activities include a general safety and welfare role for police officers in helping citizens who may be in peril or who may otherwise be in need of some form of assistance.

The court then chose to use a three-prong test, under which

the State has the burden of proving that: (1) a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred; (2) if so, that under the totality of the circumstances an objectively reasonable basis for a community caretaking function is shown; and (3) if so, that the public need or interest outweighs the intrusion upon the privacy of the individual.

Under the third prong, relevant considerations include, but are not limited to,

(1) the degree of the public interest and the exigency of the situation; (2) the attendant circumstances surrounding the seizure, including time, location, the degree of overt authority and force displayed; (3) whether an automobile is involved; and (4) the availability, feasibility and effectiveness of alternatives to the type of intrusion actually accomplished.

Applying this three-prong test to the facts in Smathers, the court concluded that the three prongs were satisfied. The court was quick to conclude that the first two prongs were met - namely, that the defendant was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and that the officer’s witnessing of the defendant’s collision with the animal was an objectively reasonable basis for a community caretaking function.

In analyzing the third prong, the court concluded that the public need outweighed the intrusion on the privacy of the defendant. The court reasoned that because the accident occurred at nighttime on a remote road, there was little chance that the defendant could have received help from someone else. Furthermore, the officer actually witnessed the collision so that “he was able to identify specific facts which led him to believe that help may have been needed, rather than a general sense that something was wrong.” Lastly, the court reasoned that a person has a decreased expectation of privacy in his car than in his home.

The court also noted that an accident involving property damage of more than $1,000 is a “reportable crash” under North Carolina statute. North Carolina statute also requires law enforcement officers to investigate a “reportable accident.” Therefore, the officer had an additional statutory duty.

The court concluded that the traffic stop of the defendant fell under the newly adopted community caretaker exception and did not violated the Fourth Amendment.

If you have been arrested for DWI, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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