Last term, SCOTUS rejected the idea that “community caretaking” is a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home. See Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021). Concurring opinions raised the possibility that the doctrine either no longer exists or applies only to the search of impounded vehicles. See our post. The court of appeals holds that the community caretaker doctrine continues to apply to traffic stops, and it justified the search and seizure in this case.
A bartender told law enforcement that a man was passed out in a car in the bar’s parking lot. Deputies determined that the car belonged to Promer, who had 6 prior OWIs, an outstanding warrant, and was limited to a .02 BAC. So when they later spotted his car traveling down the road, pulling into a parking spot and striking the curb, they investigated. They found Promer slumped over his wheel and unable to keep his eyes open. His inability to perform field sobriety tests led to his arrest for OWI and to a search of his car, which revealed drugs and paraphernalia.
Promer moved to suppress arguing that the deputies lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him. The court of appeals held that Caniglia did not eliminate the community caretaking doctrine. Caniglia merely held that the doctrine cannot justify intrusions into the home. The doctrine still applies to searches and seizures of vehicles. Opinion, ¶¶21-22.
To determine whether a seizure is justified under the community caretaker doctrine, a court considers: (1) whether a 4th Amendment seizure occurred; (2) whether the police conducted a bona fide community caretaker activity; and (3) whether the public’s interest outweighs the intrusion upon the individual’s privacy. In Promer’s case, everyone agreed that a 4th Amendment seizure occurred.
The court of appeals held that the deputies were clearly engaged in a community caretaker function. They were checking on the well-being of a man who–just 10 minutes earlier–had been seen passed out in the parking lot of a bar. That fact was not negated by their subjective law enforcement concerns about a possible OWI. Opinion, ¶¶24-36 (citing State v. Ultsch, 2011 WI App 17, 331 Wis. 2d 242, 793 N.W.2d 505 (2010) and State v. Kramer, 2009 WI 14, 315 Wis. 2d 414, 759 N.W.2d 598.)
The court of appeals also found that the public’s interest in the stop outweighed the intrusion on Promer’s privacy. Promer’s condition posed a significant risk of harm to himself and to others if he attempted to drive again. Opinion, ¶¶37-46.