Community Caretaking Function traffic stops limited by Court of Appeals

In  Poe v. Commonwealth, 169 S.W.3d 54 (Ky. CA) July 22, 2005, the Ky. Court of Appeals limited traffic stops based on the community caretaking function theory. 

In this case the officer said he felt the motorist was lost.  The officer turned on his takedown lights and pulled the motorist over and subsequently cited him for DUI.  The court held this did not meet the required test for the application of this law. The court held this traffic stop did not meet the required test for the application of this law.

Courts are required to “make an objective assessment of the officer’s actions” when determining if a stop was reasonable.
        On December 21, 2002 an officer with the Hopkinsville Police Department observed Poe driving up and down the same streets around 1:30 a.m. The citation notes a “courtesy stop was made to possibly offer directions.” The officer effected the stop by pulling behind Poe and activating his emergency lights. Once the stop was made the officer noticed Poe had bloodshot eyes, a carefree attitude, and was not wearing a seatbelt. Poe admitted upon questioning that he had been smoking marijuana. Poe was arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs, no insurance, possession of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia, first offense.

        Poe filed a motion to suppress all evidence based on the allegation that the officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion upon which to believe any criminal activity was afoot, thus, the stop did not meet the constitutional standards required by Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979).

The Commonwealth admits that the stop of Poe was not based on any reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity and the circuit court’s ruling also recognizes that the stop of Poe was not based on this principle, thus, it cannot be justified pursuant to the doctrines expressed Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1401, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979) and Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21-22, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1880, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). See also, Simpson v. Commonwealth, 834 S.W.2d 686, 687 (Ky.App.1992). Essentially the Commonwealth is admitting the stop of Poe was illegal unless the community caretaking function exception applies.

        The community caretaking function was first articulated by the United States Supreme Court Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973). The Court explained the idea in the context of a case where the police had searched a vehicle without a warrant that had been removed from an accident scene. The search occurred later in time from the accident and was made to locate the driver’s, who was a Chicago police officer, service revolver. Id. 413 U.S. at 437, 93 S.Ct. at 2526. The Court found the search not to violate Constitutional principles stating:

        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.         Id. 413 U.S. at 441, 93 S.Ct. at 2528.


 All courts that have considered the community caretaking function have required, at a minimum, that the officer’s actions must be measured by a standard of reasonableness. One court described this determination as “balancing the public need and interest furthered by the police conduct against the degree and nature of the intrusion upon the privacy of the citizen.” State v. Ellenbecker, 159 Wis.2d 91, 96, 464 N.W.2d 427, 429 (Wis.App.1990), rev. den., 468 N.W.2d 28 (Wis.1991).

        Ellenbecker applied this test in the context of a police officer requesting the license of an operator of a disabled vehicle. Id. 159 Wis.2d at 96-97, 464 N.W.2d at 429. But its principle is equally applicable to Poe’s case because when Officer Marszalek stopped Poe using his emergency lights he effectively seized him. That is, any reasonable person in Poe’s situation would not have felt free to walk, or drive, away. Terry v. Ohio, supra 392 U.S. at 16, 88 S.Ct. at 1877. See also, State v. Jestice, 861 A.2d 1060, 1062 (Vt.2004)(stop is a shorthand way of referring to a seizure).
As others have noted, for the community caretaking function to apply there must be some specific and articulable facts that would lead the officer to reasonably believe the citizen is in need of assistance. Jestice, supra 861 A.2d at 1064. An officer’s practice cannot provide reasonable grounds. Id. In this respect we agree with the observation that:

        An officer’s subjective explanation for stopping or detaining a driver does not control Fourth Amendment analysis. Courts are required to “make an objective assessment of the officer’s actions” when determining if a stop was reasonable.

        State v. Rinehart, 617 N.W.2d 842, 845 (S.D.2000)(Sabers, J. dissenting)(quoting United States v. Cummins, 920 F.2d 498, 501 (8th Cir.1990)(citing Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128, 136, 98 S.Ct. 1717, 1723, 56 L.Ed.2d 168, 177 (1978))).

        Such an objective assessment must also be applied in the context of an argument for the community caretaking function, otherwise, the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment would quickly be eroded. Court approval of any reason related to “public need” for stopping and detaining a citizen based on the subjective beliefs of police officers is constitutionally insufficient.

There have been no published cases in Kentucky considering the application of the community caretaking function to a stop made by a police officer. Cady v. Dombrowski, supra has only been cited and relied on twice: once City of Danville v. Dawson, 528 S.W.2d 687 (Ky.1975) which has since been reversed by Estep v. Commonwealth, 663 S.W.2d 213 (Ky.1983). And the other Kentucky case citing to Cady v. Dombrowski, supra is Blankenship v. Commonwealth, 740 S.W.2d 164 (Ky.App.1987). Blankenship held that an officer’s search of a vehicle of a person who had been shot and was unconscious in order to seek his identity was proper. Id. at 166. In the process the officer found incriminating evidence in plain view — the Court held the evidence admissible. Id.
        The circumstances in these cases are dissimilar from the facts here. In Poe’s case the issue is not whether an inventory search meets the constitutional standard, but whether the stop itself qualifies under the community caretaking function.
The question is was Officer Marszalek’s stop of Poe reasonable in the circumstances. We hold it was not.

 The public need in this case is slight. People commonly become lost, if in fact Officer Marszalek’s assumption about Poe’s driving was correct. Police officers do not normally pull someone over because they believe the operator of the vehicle needs directions. The intrusion on the privacy of the citizen, however, is great. The ordinary citizen would not expect a police officer to activate his emergency lights and effect a stop with which the citizen must comply without the stop being supported by some sort of traffic violation or criminal activity. Poe, of course, was free to stop the officer and ask directions. If he had initiated the stop, we would have a different situation.
Officer Marszalek’s belief that Poe may need directions is not a valid basis to stop him in these circumstances. Officer Marszalek observed no traffic violations, no criminal activity, and no evidence such as a flat tire, flashing lights, jumper cables, a raised hood or any other indication that Poe required assistance.

 The community caretaking function does not provide justification for the stop in this case. Whether it would provide justification in other circumstances we leave for another day.
        The decision of the circuit court is reversed and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.





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