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COA upholds stop on community-caretaker grounds

State v. Keith J. Dresser, 2020AP2017, 7/22/21, District 4 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

A sheriff’s deputy saw Dresser apparently unconscious in his vehicle in a Taco Bell parking lot at 5:00 a.m. The deputy pulled behind Dresser’s vehicle, turned on his emergency lights apparently based on departmental “procedures,” and knocked on the window. Dresser woke up, he and/or the deputy opened a car door, and ultimately Dresser was arrested for OWI.

On appeal, the state contends that the officer’s acts up to the opening of the car door were not a seizure of Dresser, but the court assumes that they are. It nevertheless finds any seizure justified by the community caretaker doctrine.

A note: this case was briefed before the Supreme Court decided Caniglia v. Strom, which as we noted, disavowed the “community caretaking” doctrine as a justification for entering the home and arguably eliminated it altogether. The opinion here notes Caniglia but doesn’t seem to think it had any impact on seizures outside the home. (¶11 n.2).

The decision is, as you might imagine, fact-bound. The court recites Wisconsin’s three-step inquiry, citing State v. Kramer, 2009 WI 14, ¶21, 315 Wis. 2d 414, 759 N.W.2d 598, and finds it satisfied based on “Dresser’s posture, the time of day, and the prevalence of overdoses in the community.” (¶13). (The “community” referred to is apparently Monona.) With respect to the third prong–whether the public interest or exigency outweighed the intrusion on Dresser’s liberty interests–the court rejects Dresser’s argument that the cop’s use of his flashers pushed the seizure over the line:

Dresser appears to acknowledge that, under the circumstances, it would have been reasonable for Schafer to park his squad car and approach Dresser’s vehicle on foot to check on his medical condition. However, according to Dresser, Schafer did not need to activate his emergency lights as a safety precaution in the parking lot. Dresser argues that Schafer’s decision to do so was “gratuitous,” and there existed “clearly less intrusive means, both available and feasible,” for checking on whether Dresser needed medical attention. As I understand it, Dresser is arguing that everything Schafer did was appropriate except for the activation of his emergency lights, which was an overt display of authority and was unnecessary under the circumstances.

Here, the intrusion upon Dresser’s liberty interests was minimal. Dresser’s vehicle was already parked. By activating his emergency lights, Schafer temporarily prevented Dresser from leaving while Schafer checked on Dresser’s condition. Although the record does not demonstrate a strong need for Schafer to activate his lights, this point alone does not outweigh the undeniable public interest in law enforcement responding to individuals who may be suffering from the effects of substance abuse or other medical emergencies. Therefore, I conclude that the public need and interest outweigh the minimal intrusion upon Dresser’s liberty interests.



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