The Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement

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.