The Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement

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The court of appeals recently expanded the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement, entering a national controversy over the proper scope of the doctrine. This post explains the exception and the disagreement about its proper application.

Background: United States Supreme Court. The doctrine was first recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). In Dombrowski, the defendant was driving while impaired and wrecked his vehicle. Officers impounded and then searched the defendant’s car, finding evidence that linked the defendant to a murder. The defendant argued that the warrantless seizure and search of his car violated the Fourth Amendment, but the Court disagreed, finding that no warrant was necessary:

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.

The Court ruled that the decision to impound the vehicle was a reasonable safety precaution given the defendant’s inability to make arrangements for it, and that searching the vehicle to make sure that no weapons were in it was a reasonable departmental policy.

Background: North Carolina. Following Dombrowski, the North Carolina appellate courts adopted the community caretaking doctrine with regard to the impoundment of abandoned or disabled vehicles. See, e.g., State v. Phifer, 297 N.C. 216 (1979).

Smathers. In State v. Smathers, __ N.C. App. __, 753 S.E.2d 380 (2014), the court of appeals expanded the scope of the community caretaking doctrine. The defendant in Smathers was driving lawfully on a highway when an officer who happened to be nearby saw the defendant strike a large animal that had run into the road, “causing her vehicle to bounce and produce sparks as it scraped the road. [The officer] pulled his police cruiser behind [the] defendant, who had decreased her speed to about 35 miles per hour, and activated his blue lights. He testified that . . . he stopped defendant to ensure that she and the vehicle were ‘okay.’”

As it turned out, the defendant was impaired, and was arrested for DWI. She argued that the stop was unlawful, but both the trial judge and the court of appeals disagreed. The court of appeals “formally recognize[d]” the community caretaking doctrine outside the abandoned vehicle context, and ruled that the stop was justified under the doctrine. As formulated by the court of appeals, the doctrine applies if there is a “reasonable need” for community caretaking, and the public need for caretaking outweighs the intrusion on individual privacy. Factors to be considered in the balancing test include:

(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.

The court also stated that the officer’s subjective intentions are irrelevant. So long as the balancing test is satisfied, the fact that an officer may also have wanted to investigate possible criminal activity does not render the search or seizure improper. Finally, the court stated that the community caretaking doctrine should be “applied narrowly.” However, it ruled that in this case, the officer’s concern for the defendant’s safety justified the stop, especially given that the collision took place at nighttime in a remote area and involved a large animal.

Unanswered questions and the national controversy. Smathers expands the scope of the community caretaking doctrine, but the balancing test sounds rather elastic and the opinion doesn’t define the outer limits of the doctrine. Consider the following questions:

  • Can the doctrine apply outside the vehicle context – for example, when an officer enters a home to do a safety check on an elderly resident? Courts elsewhere are split, but the fact that the involvement of a motor vehicle is only one factor in the court of appeals’ balancing test suggests that in North Carolina, perhaps it can.
  • How severe the safety threat must be for the doctrine to apply? May an officer stop a motorist who is driving aimlessly and may be lost? One who has pulled over lawfully and is talking on a mobile phone? One who has a tire that appears to be mildly underinflated? Again, courts across the country disagree.
  • How does the scope of the community caretaking exception compare to the emergency doctrine, discussed in this blog post and codified in G.S. 15A-285?

These questions will eventually be answered by further cases. In the meantime, those interested in further reading may review the discussion of community caretaking in Bob Farb’s book, Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina, or in Professor LaFave’s search and seizure treatise. A slightly more casual and less dense alternative is this ABA Journal article, which does a nice job of summarizing the disarray in this area of the law.

5 comments on “The Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement

  1. Anytime the courts give cops another way to avoid RS they doom any chance the 4th Amendment has of surviving. All a cop has to do is say that they were ‘ concerned ” about one of us and open the door to detentions and yet another excuse to coerce consent requests for searches, etc. A driver looks ” tired ‘? Pull them over. A resident looks ” distraught ” in a home? Barge in and make sure they are OK ( of course looking around for plain sight evidence), along with a ” protective sweep of course. If cops could be trusted to respect the limits of their almost unlimited authority, the ” protection ‘ they offer on rare occasions might be realistic, but we all know that the vast majority of cops will push the limits of every law and situation to the breaking point in order to get another bust, regardless of how it impacts the rights we cherish.

    To a cop, a warrant is a pain in the neck, an impediment to their ” getting the job done ” and something to be gotten around if at all possible. In the cops ideal world, they would be able to enter any residence, search any car or person and detain anyone for any length of time based only on their ” instincts ” or hunches. How many times do cops say ” Why would you object to me searching you ( or your car or home, etc. ) if you have nothing to hide “? They just do not care a whit about the shredding of the principles of liberty as long as they can advance their agenda; More busts, more numbers to use for prestige and advancement and more assets to seize. Cops cannot be trusted to protect the Constitution, indeed they are it’s worst enemy in a practical sense when left with too many means to avoid compliance. Cops must be kept on a very short leash, lest they bite anyone they can reach.

  2. I want to thank Richie Rich for his generalities regarding cops. I have worked in law enforcement for over 40 years. While we do recruit from the same barrell as the rest of the human race, we are not perfect. I have seen many cases lost due to poor investigations–that is the way it should be. Yes, we are supposed to be making arrests and doing investigations because this is what we are paid to do. We go through multiple training sessions every year trying to keep up with what is currently “acceptable” in Court. As is well known there are a veritable plethora of laws and changes made almost daily. Our job entails checking on the public as well as the many other duties which our office requires. I suggest Mr. Rich look into attending one of the many citizen academies offered throughout our great State. Walk a mile in my shoes before you judge my footsteps. That being said, this ruling looks like it will require many narrowed interpretations before a complete “standard” can be set. It seems to be a prudent officer (and there are a great many of these) will consult his agency attorney and the district attorneys office for guidance.

  3. Case:

    Police notice an apparently impaired man walking along the street. Stopping, they determine he is intoxicated and a candidate for the local detox facility. There are no local ordinances regarding public intoxication, so he is not subject to arrest. Although the man has no current address, he has occasionally stayed at a friend’s apartment and has a key to the apartment. Police take him to the friend’s apartment to determine if he has authorization to stay there. The friend’s apartment opens into a hallway. She is in bed but awake with her bedroom door open; her bedroom opens to the hallway. Beyond the hallway is her darkened living room. Her friend unlocks the door and comes in asking her to tell the officers he can stay there. Police (who will later say he authorized entry) follow him but proceed past him using flashlights to check the darkened living room, where they find marijuana paraphernalia. The friend is charged with misdemeanor possession of the paraphernalia. She uses marijuana on occasion but has not done so recently; no marijuana is found and there was no odor of marijuana in the apartment.

    The woman, who does not have an attorney, argues in court that the search revealing the paraphernalia was unlawful. The intoxicated man (who unexpectedly died during the night after police left and she went back to bed) is not available for testimony, but the officers claim he gave authorization to enter the apartment.

    Seems to me that the community caretaking role only allowed scope for the officers to determine that the man had permission to stay at the apartment, which only required the resident’s response. When the officers proceeded beyond her bedroom their role changed into a police investigation role, but without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion to justify that change.

  4. Just tried a DWI case in District Court and the Judge found that the community caretaking doctrine applied. The undisputed facts are that one night the Defendant was traveling down the highway and the trooper was parked beside the road on the opposite side in the opposite direction. The Trooper testified that he had his lights off, but his vehicle faced the oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the road. Trooper indicated that within 500 feet from his location, he notice the Defendant flash her headlights four times. Immediately after Defendant’s vehicle passed, the Trooper activated his blue lights to stop vehicle. There was no bad driving, no speeding or weaving. The Court found the Community Caretaking doctrine applied. To me, this is clearly in violation of Terry v. Ohio.

  5. […] Jeff previously blogged about the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement here. Huddy doesn’t answer all of the questions raised in that post about the exception, but the […]

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