The community caretaker doctrine is an exception to the general requirement that a warrantless detention must be based upon articulable and reasonable suspicion that a crime has transpired or is about to transpire.
The doctrine is legal sanctioning of the phrase “we’re from the government; we’re here to help you.” Via the community caretaker exception, the courts have authorized the police to act in certain instances to help distressed citizens.
The implementation of the community caretaker doctrine in the context of drunk driving cases is demonstrated in a Montana case where the defendant was asleep on the side of the road with the engine running and the headlights turned off. A knock on the window by a police officer did not cause the defendant to awaken from his slumber. This prompted the officer to open the car door, whereupon he discovered the defendant in an intoxicated state.
The Montana Supreme Court found the police officer’s intrusion lawful under the community caretaker doctrine. The Montana court described the standard for reviewing community caretaker investigations as follows:
First, as long as there are objective, specific, and articulable facts from which an experienced officer would suspect that a citizen is in need of help or is in peril, then the officer has the right to stop and investigate. Second, if the citizen is in need of aid, then the officer may take appropriate action to render assistance or mitigate the peril. Third, once, however, the officer is assured that the citizen is not in peril or is no longer in need of assistance or that the peril has been mitigated, then actions beyond that constitute a seizure implicating not only the protection provided by the Fourth Amendment, but more importantly, those greater guarantees afforded under Article II. Sections 10 and 11 of the Montana Constitution.
Some state courts have limited the community caretaker doctrine by adopting guidelines or imposing certain thresholds. For example, guidelines were adopted for the caretaker doctrine in a Texas case where the court reversed the conviction of a drunk driver who was stopped by a trooper using the community caretaker exception.
The Texas trooper first observed the defendant pull over to the shoulder of the road. It appeared to the trooper that the defendant’s wife was vomiting out of the open passenger side door. As the trooper pulled behind the defendant, the defendant pulled back onto the road and was eventually stopped by the police officer. The court found the stop unwarranted. The Texas court adopted the following guidelines in reviewing community caretaker detentions:
Similarly, the California Supreme Court requires a high threshold to be met before an officer can make a detention based on the community caretaking exception. The California Supreme Court mandated that a substantial risk to life or the possibility of major property damage exist before the police can act under this exception. The court stated:
We agree with defendant that the People did not meet their burden of establishing circumstances warranting the officers’ actions under the emergency aid component of community caretaking. This justification requires specific, articulable facts indicating the need for “swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property…”