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Community Caretaker – Investigation of Stopped Car Late at Night

State v. Lance F. Truax, 2009 WI App 60, PFR filed 5/4/09
For Truax: Kiley Zellner

Issue/Holding: Largely on community caretaker rationale of State v. Todd Lee Kramer, 2009 WI 14, the court upholds seizure of car observed pulling over on the shoulder late at night. The cop didn’t suspect any traffic violation, but simply thought that a driver who’d pulled off the roadway and remained parked for about 15 seconds merited concern for his well-being. Turns out Truax was drunk, though the cop didn’t know as much beforehand and the trial court suppressed evidence of Truax’s intoxication, but the court of appeals reverses, applying the 3-part (with multiple sub-parts) test of State v. Anderson, 142 Wis. 2d 162, 417 N.W.2d 411 (Ct. App. 1987). Roughly: Truax was seized when the cop activated his lights, ¶11; objective basis for “bona fide” community caretaker activity was supported by “Truax’s abrupt departure from the roadway” thereby prompting concern about a mechanical problem or the driver’s well-being, ¶16; the time (post-midnight) and place (unpaved shoulder of the road) “increased the need for safety precautions,” ¶19. And, consideration of the “feasibility and availability of alternatives” weighed in favor of the intrusion:

 ¶21   … Truax argues that Hansen should have observed his vehicle for a longer period of time to determine whether the vehicle had problems or whether the driver was in distress. This argument was rejected in Kramer for good reason. Kramer, 2009 WI 14, ¶45. If the officer had left the vehicle and the driver had stopped abruptly for health reasons, it might have been too late for effective assistance at a later time. See id. Nor does it make sense for an officer to abandon a vehicle that may be experiencing mechanical difficulties, thereby risking the driver exiting the vehicle in the dark and walking along the roadway. See id. The alternatives suggested by Truax would have prevented Hansen from rendering effective aid under the community caretaker function had it been needed. The fourth factor favors a finding of reasonableness, and therefore, the third and final step of Anderson is satisfied.

Does the result amount to broad-based authorization for caretaker stops of cars pulled of the road? Indeed, Truax gave no cause for concern other than pulling onto the shoulder. If you put on your hazard lights, as Kramer did, then you’re signaling distress; but, like Truax, failing to do so is an insignificant detail (¶16). Nonetheless, the court marshals time of night, unpaved condition of the shoulder, and “abrupt departure from the roadway” as support, so those are where the points of distinction might be made, if possible.


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