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Community Caretaker or Criminal Investigator? When Can Police Officers Search A Vehicle without Suspicion of Criminal Activity?

Ordinarily, when a police officer seeks to enter a person's vehicle without their permission, they need to have some reasonable suspicion that its occupants have engaged in criminal activity. One exception to this rule is the "community care-taker" exception. This doctrine dates back to a 1973 Supreme Court Case called Cady v. Dombrowski. In that case, a police officer took custody of the defendant's vehicle following a traffic accident so that he could move the vehicle out of oncoming traffic. Upon learning that there was a revolver in the trunk of the vehicle, the officer opened the trunk and removed the gun. 

The Supreme Court found that even though the officer did not suspect that criminal activity was afoot at the time, the search was nevertheless reasonable, because the police officer was protecting the public at large from trespassers who could have opened the trunk and taken the gun before the defendant could retrieve his car. The Court noted that because police officers are frequently called to perform functions that were totally divorced from investigating crimes, some searches and seizures were allowable under the Fourth Amendment when police are performing a community care-taking function.

While the community care-taker doctrine gives police officers some latitude to effect searches and seizures to perform functions like removing hazards and rendering medical assistance, courts are reluctant to apply the exception when the community caretaking function is really just a pretext to investigate crimes. A recent case out of Volusia County called State v. Hanson demonstrates this principle. In Hanson an officer spotted the defendant asleep at the driver's seat inside a lawfully-parked vehicle. The officer opened the door and ordered the defendant to exit, whereupon she discovered that the defendant smelled of alcohol.

The Volusia county court found that the search was unlawful, in part because Florida law holds that merely observing an individual in a parked vehicle is not sufficient to create reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. It also held that the community care-taker exception did not apply, because the officer's actions did not show concern for the defendant's immediate medical condition. The court noted that the officer never called for medical assistance, and even took photographs of the defendant from different angles before opening the car door.

The community care-taker doctrine is an important consideration for anyone challenging an unlawful search. Reasonable suspicion of criminal activity might not be required to search a vehicle, where police officers are performing such functions. However, Hanson demonstrates that even when officers claim they are performing care-taking functions, those explanations may just be pretext to justify an illegal search or seizure. When so-called care-taking becomes a pretext to conduct a warrantless search, evidence seized as a result of that search can be suppressed.

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Sheppard, White, Kachergus, & DeMaggio, P.A. Attorneys & Counselors at Law.
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