Assisting a stranded motorist, giving directions or simply providing five minutes of friendly conversation are examples of a police officer’s community-caretaking function. Photo Dale Stockton
A police officer's community-caretaking responsibilities will, under some circumstances, permit them to enter a home or search a vehicle without a warrant in order to help members of the community. Photo Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN TRAINING
While on routine patrol, police officers often perform duties other than responding to calls from dispatchers or initiating calls themselves after observing crimes in progress. As a matter of fact, police officers typically encounter situations that merely require them to offer a helping hand. This latter category could involve assisting a stranded motorist, giving directions or simply providing five minutes of friendly conversation.
Police officers often engage in activities to help people in danger and to protect property as part of their community-caretaking functions. The United States Supreme Court first recognized this more than a quarter century ago in Cady v. Dombrowski, stating that police officers . . . frequently investigate vehicle accidents [and other incidents] 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. 1 However, officers must know the community-caretaking function remains a grey area when it comes to the Fourth Amendment. For example, after doing what they think is the right thing to do, police officers sometimes find themselves named in a civil rights lawsuit by the very person they thought they were helping.
To be sure, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Some courts recognize the community-caretaking function is an exception to the Fourth Amendment s prohibition against warrantless searches. In other words, a police officer s community-caretaking responsibilities will, under some circumstances, permit them to enter a home or search a vehicle without a warrant in order to help members of the community.
To illustrate, one court found that police officers were lawfully inside a residence in their role as community caretakers after a houseguest called police, complaining that their host was drunk and belligerent and threatening the guest s children.2 The houseguest invited the officers inside, where they observed several machine guns. The host was later convicted for illegally receiving and possessing the guns. The host appealed his conviction; however, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, stating it was reasonable to expect the guest to ask police officers to enter the home to keep the peace.
In another case, when the defendant failed to report to work, the defendant s colleague obtained a key to his apartment from the landlord.3 The colleague called the police to come inside the apartment with him. Inside the apartment, the officer found the defendant, drunk, and observed guns in plain view. The defendant was subsequently convicted of being a felon in possession of firearms. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming the conviction, stated the police had a right to be on the premises as part of their routine community caretaking functions which include responding to calls to assist persons in need of immediate aid. 4
Other examples of police officers lawful conduct as part of their community-caretaking function include entering a home to locate a nine-year-old boy whose mother had just been arrested on drug charges;5 accompanying a man under arrest back into his house to retrieve shoes after observing broken glass on the ground near the man s bare feet;6 and, impounding a vehicle to protect it from theft or vandalism.7 However, police officers must recognize the community-caretaking function cannot be used as a subterfuge to conduct a search under circumstances that would otherwise prohibit them from entering the home or seizing the vehicle.
Sherbrooke v. City of Pelican Rapids
Recently, a federal Minnesota district court denied a motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of police officers accused of violating a motorist s rights to be free from an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment.8 The motorist, David Sherbrooke, attended his high school reunion on July 24, 2004. He consumed four alcoholic beverages within a two-hour time span. After leaving the reunion in his vehicle, Sherbrooke pulled over to the side of the road to look up a phone number. In doing so, he activated his four-way hazard lights. Sherbrooke claims that after pulling back onto the road, he turned off his hazard lights after he reached the posted speed limit.
Sherbrooke then passed a squad car operated by a Pelican Rapids, Minn., police officer stopped at a stop sign. The officer pulled out behind Sherbrooke and after 25 seconds, activated the overhead lights. In response, Sherbrooke pulled over to the side of the road. The officer claims he stopped Sherbrooke because the hazards were still activated as Sherbrooke passed him on the highway. According to the officer, he wondered whether there was an emergency that he could assist.
The officer approached Sherbrooke s vehicle and detected a moderate odor of alcohol on Sherbrooke s breath. The officer also observed Sherbrooke had watery eyes. The officer asked Sherbrooke to perform three standard field sobriety tests, which he failed. After administering a portable breath test, which resulted in a .11 blood alcohol level, the officer arrested Sherbrooke for suspicion of DWI.
Sherbrooke consented to the police parking his car rather than having it towed. A second officer performed a vehicle-search incident to the arrest. During the search, the officer found a .40-caliber Glock 22 in the compartment located on the driver s door. Sherbrooke claims not to have known he was carrying a loaded Glock. As a result, Sherbrooke was also charged for carrying a weapon in violation of Minnesota state law.
The traffic stop was captured on the officer s in-car video camera. There was a dispute as to what the videotape depicted. According to an investigator hired by Sherbrooke, the videotape demonstrated Sherbrooke s hazards were not on as the officer pulled behind Sherbrooke. Apparently, Sherbrooke requested a copy of the videotape; however, approximately 1.5 minutes were erased from the tape, including that portion of the tape that depicted the officer pulling behind Sherbrooke, following him and then stopping him. According to the officers, the tape was accidentally erased.
The charges against Sherbrooke were eventually dropped, and he wasn t prosecuted. Subsequently, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officers for, among other claims, violations of his rights under the Fourth Amendment.
In support of their motion for summary judgment, the officers argued they were engaging in the community-caretaking function when Sherbrooke was observed driving down the highway with his hazard lights on. The officer initiating the traffic stop pulled him over to see if there was an emergency. Accordingly, the officers argued it was reasonable to stop Sherbrooke to determine the nature of the emergency. Afterward, once the initial officer detected the odor of alcohol, it was reasonable to perform field sobriety tests and arrest Sherbrooke for a DWI.
The district court acknowledged that police officers engage in activities to help those in danger and to protect property as part of their community-caretaking functions. According to the district court, in determining the applicability of this doctrine, the standard to be used is whether the officer had a reasonable belief an emergency existed. Unfortunately for the officers, the court found an issue of material fact existed for the jury to resolve and, therefore, denied the officers motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the court found there was an issue of material fact as to whether the officer s belief an emergency existed was objectively reasonable because there was evidence Sherbrooke turned off his hazard lights as soon as he spotted the officer, and that the officer followed Sherbrooke for 25 seconds with Sherbrooke s hazard lights off before pulling Sherbrooke over.
The Sherbrooke case is an example of a police officer attempting to do the right thing and assist a motorist whom he thought required assistance. This type of activity is fairly common in the world of law enforcement. However, it should come as no surprise that the very individuals officers attempt to assist turn the events to make it appear the officers actions were a subterfuge to engage in an otherwise unlawful search and seizure.
The Bottom Line
It's the same advice you may have heard time and again: Clearly articulate the reasons for your actions and document them thoroughly but succinctly. Who knows? Even the simplest and most innocuous task may come back to visit you in the form of a civil rights lawsuit.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.
1. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973).
2. United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026 (5th Cir. 1990).
3. United States v. Nord, 586 F.2d 1288 (8th Cir. 1978).
4. Id. at 1290.
5. United States v. Bradley, 321 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2003).
6. United States v. Butler, 980 F.2d 619 (10th Cir. 1992).
7. United States v. Ramos-Morales, 981 F.2d 625 (1st Cir. 1992).
8. Sherbrooke v. City of Pelican Rapids, No. 05-671, 2006 WL 3227783 (D. Minn. Nov. 7, 2006).