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Suicide threat justifies “community caretaker” stop of vehicle

Dane County v. Joshua H. Quisling, 2013AP2743, 10/16/14, District 4, (1-judge decision, ineligible for publication); case activity

Applying the “community caretaker” doctrine, the court of appeals held that a police officer was justified in stopping Quisling’s car based upon an informant’s tip that he was suicidal.  Evidence obtained after the stop need not be suppressed, and Quisling’s OWI conviction stands.

The test for whether an officer’s search and seizure falls within the “community caretaker” doctrine is: (1) whether a seizure within the meaning of the 4th Amendment has occurred; (2) whether the police conduct at issue was bona fide community caretaker activity; and (3) whether the public’s need and interest outweigh the intrusion upon the individual’s privacy.  State v. Kramer, 2009 WI 14, ¶21, 315 Wis. 2d 414, 759 N.W.2d 598. In this appeal, only part (3) was at issue, and the court of appeals had no trouble finding that the public’s interest outweighed the intrusion upon Quisling’s privacy.

An informant, whose credibility was uncontested, told police that Quisling was suicidal and that he had also made suicidal statements 4 weeks earlier. On the night at issue, he was angry, had threatened to “end it all after his last bottle,” and had threatened to “drive his car into oncoming traffic.”  Police contacted Quisling by phone, but he misled them about his location. They tracked him down at 1:54 a.m. Given these circumstances, the court of appeals held, the public had an interest in preventing a possible suicide, and the police had reason to believe the situation was urgent, despite some evidence that Quisling might not actually carry out his threat.  The manner in which the police approached Quisling (officer flashed his lights, Quisling pulled over, officer approached Quisling) were consistent with checking on his well-being. And, given what had transpired with the first phone call, the police had no other way to make personal contact with Quisling. Slip op. ¶¶7-23.  Thus, the police engaged in a valid community caretaker activity when they stopped him.



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