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Community Caretaker

City of Sheboygan v. Benjamin B. Schultz, 2011AP904, District 2, 11/09/11

court of appeals decision (1-judge, not for publication); for Schultz: Casey J. Hoff; case activity

Stop of Schultz’s vehicle supported by community caretaker doctrine where, as Schultz drove past officer conducting an otherwise unrelated traffic stop, Schultz’s passenger door opened up and someone inside of Schultz’s vehicle yelled out.

¶7        While the community caretaker function is not like a typical search and seizure, Fourth Amendment considerations still apply.  Anderson, 142 Wis. 2d at 167-68.  We apply a three-part test to determine whether an officer was lawfully exercising his or her community caretaker functions:  (1) did a seizure occur?; (2) if yes, was the police conduct a bona fide community caretaker activity?; and (3) if yes, did the public need and interest outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the individual?  Id. at 169.

¶8        There is no question that Schultz was seized.  We thus move to the second part of the test.  When determining whether an officer was acting as a community caretaker, a court must examine the totality of the circumstances at the time of the police conduct.  Kramer, 315 Wis. 2d 414, ¶30.  The circuit court concluded that if a car drives by a police officer with its door open and one of the passengers yells out, the officer has a duty to investigate the situation to make sure no one in the car is in danger. We agree that the investigation of this situation clearly falls within an officer’s community caretaker function.

¶9        We now turn to the third part of the test:  whether the public need and interest outweighed the intrusion upon the privacy of Schultz.  Given that Officer Smith testified that while he was conducting a traffic stop a car drove by with an open passenger door and one of the occupants yelling, it was reasonable for Smith to investigate to find out if someone in the vehicle needed assistance, as there is no rational reason for a citizen to open his car door as he drives by a police officer conducting a traffic stop. As it was reasonable for the officer to determine if someone in Schultz’s car was in danger or needed assistance, we hold that the public safety interests outweighed the privacy interests of Schultz.

Compare, State v. Eric W. Sagen, 2010AP2119-CR, District 4, 1/20/11 (yell from inside passing vehicle triggered community caretaker stop).

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