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Community Caretaker – Investigation of Stopped Car with Hazard Lights on

State v. Todd Lee Kramer, 2009 WI 14, affirming 2008 WI App 62
For Kramer: Stephen J. Eisenberg, Marsha M. Lysen

Issue/Holding:

¶37      We conclude that Wagner had an objectively reasonable basis for deciding that a motorist may have been in need of assistance when he stopped behind Kramer’s vehicle. Kramer was parked on the side of a highway after dark with his hazard flashers operating. It was Wagner’s experience that when a vehicle is parked on the side of the road with its hazard flashers operating, typically there is a vehicle problem. His first contact with Kramer was to offer assistance. He said, “Hi. Can I help you with something?” and “Just making sure no vehicle problems.”

¶38      Wagner also acknowledged that he did not know what was going on inside the vehicle, or whether there was a driver present. He approached the vehicle with caution, but to do so was standard police procedure, designed to protect an officer who was entering upon an unknown situation. It was only after Kramer spoke that Wagner’s concern shifted from his community caretaker function to a law enforcement function.

The court then employs the community caretaker “balancing test” (public interest vs. individual’s liberty), comprised of four factors, and concludes that it favors the caretaker function on the particular facts, ¶¶40-46 (largely turning on the idea that the interaction involved a potentially stranded motorist).

 

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