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Community caretaker exception validated traffic stop

City of LaCrosse v. Corina Ducharme, 2014AP374, District 4, 8/7/14 (1-judge; ineligible for publication); case activity

The stop of Ducharme’s car was justified under the community caretaker doctrine because the officer had objectively reasonable grounds to be concerned about the safety of the driver, as the car was parked at a boat landing at 2:40 a.m. with its right blinker on, and a right turn would take the car toward the water.

An officer’s conduct falls within the scope of the community caretaker exception if: (1) a seizure within the meaning of the fourth amendment has occurred; (2) the police conduct was bona fide community caretaker activity; and (3) the public need and interest outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the individual. State v. Kramer, 2009 WI 14, ¶21, 315 Wis. 2d 414, 759 N.W.2d 598. There’s no dispute that Ducharme was seized when a police officer pulled behind Ducharme’s vehicle and activated her squad car’s emergency lights. (¶14). The parties dispute the other elements, but the court finds they are satisfied:

¶15      …. “[The second element] requires [the court] to determine whether there is ‘an objectively reasonable basis’ to believe [that] there is ‘a member of the public who is in need of assistance.’” [State v.Maddix, [2013 WI App 64,] 348 Wis. 2d 179, ¶20[, 831 N.W.2d 778] (quoted sources omitted). In making this determination, we examine the totality of the circumstances. Id.

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¶17      The City argues that Randall was engaged in a bona fide community caretaker activity based on Randall’s testimony that she was “concerned for the driver, that they might possibl[y] be intoxicated or impaired or need medical attention,” and Randall’s testimony that she “feared that [the driver] had passed out or was not aware of where they were.” The City also makes the following argument as to why Randall’s concerns were objectively reasonable:

The time was … after 2 AM.  The car was parked in a dark parking lot. As the officer approached the car, she noticed that its lights were on and its right turn blinker was on. Had the car turned in the direction indicated by the blinker, it would have driven towards the river, putting the driver in danger.

(Citations omitted.) Based on the totality of the circumstances, including the facts highlighted by the City, I agree with the City that Randall had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that a member of the public was in need of assistance. …

¶18      The third element “calls for a determination [of] whether the officer[’s] conduct was reasonable,” and requires this court to “‘balance the public interest or need that is furthered by the officer[’s] conduct against the degree and nature of the intrusion on the citizen’s constitutional interest.’” Maddix, 348 Wis. 2d 179, ¶31 (quoted source omitted). In balancing these interests, we consider four factors:

“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.”

Kramer, 315 Wis. 2d 414, ¶41 (quoted sources omitted).

19      The City argues that the public need and interest outweighed the intrusion on Ducharme’s privacy because “the intrusion into … Ducharme’s privacy … is … slight,” in comparison to “[t]he danger posed by a disoriented person alone in the vicinity of a river” and “[t]he possible injury of a disoriented person driving a vehicle.” Based on consideration of the four factors stated above, I agree.

The officer was patrolling the area due to ongoing burglary complaints and was concerned the driver might be operating while intoxicated, but that doesn’t preclude a finding of community caretaker activity. (¶16). True, Kramer, 315 Wis. 2d 414, ¶35, and Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973), talk about an officer’s community caretaker functions being “totally divorced” from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence of criminal conduct. But while an officer’s “subjective law enforcement concerns” may be considered, if the court concludes the officer articulated an objectively reasonable basis under the totality of the circumstances for the community caretaker function, she has met the standard of acting as a bona fide community caretaker. Kramer, 315 Wis. 2d 414, ¶¶30, 36.

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