Got an article out for Carolina Journal on the ‘Community Caregiving’ exception to the Fourth Amendment. Reprinted in full:
RALEIGH — The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. Yet in a January decision, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of an officer’s decision to stop a car even though he didn’t suspect the driver of any wrongdoing. The court concluded that there was a “community caregiving” obligation in this instance that overruled the Fourth Amendment.
On May 27, 2010, Transylvania County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Kreigsman was driving on Highway 280. Slightly ahead of him in another lane was a red Corvette driven by Audra Smathers. Smathers’ car was driving at about the posted speed limit, and Kreigsman noticed nothing suspicious about her driving. A large animal then ran in front of Smathers’ car, and she hit it. Smathers continued driving, though at a reduced speed.
Kreigsman was concerned that the fiberglass body of Smathers’ Corvette may have been damaged seriously by the impact. He decided to pull her over to make sure she was OK.
When he did so, he discovered that Smathers smelled of alcohol and had glassy eyes and slurred speech. Smathers failed a field sobriety test Kreigsman conducted. Her blood alcohol level was measured at 0.18 — more than double the legal limit — and she was charged with driving while impaired.
At trial, Smathers moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the stop, claiming that Kreigman’s actions violated her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. She brought the case to the Court of Appeals after a Superior Court judge ruled against her.
The Fourth Amendment states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a “reasonable suspicion” standard applies when police conduct a traffic stop, which is considered a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Before the Court of Appeals, the state conceded that Kreigsman did not have a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing when he stopped Smathers.
The state still contended that that the stop was not unreasonable. The Court of Appeals agreed, accepting the state’s alternative argument and — for the first time in North Carolina — recognizing a community caregiving exception.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowksi ruled that a search of a damaged car abandoned on a highway was not unreasonable and didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. A number of state courts have adopted similar reasoning.
Appeals Court Judge Robert C. Hunter described the rationale behind the exception as “the desire to give police officers the flexibility to help citizens in need or protect the public even if the prerequisite suspicion of criminal activity which would otherwise be necessary for a constitutional intrusion is nonexistent.”
The appeals court addressed whether such a community caregiving exception should apply in this case. The court adopted an analytical approach used in Wisconsin. This requires the state to establish all three findings:
• a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred;
• under the totality of the circumstances, an objectively reasonable basis for a community caretaking function has been shown; and
• the public need or interest outweighs the intrusion upon the privacy of the individual.
The appeals court answered “yes” to all three questions in Smathers’ case and allowed the evidence to be used against her. Specifically, the court noted that the collision occurred at night in a rural area, and noted that the deputy’s concern that Smathers might need help outweighed both the lack of evidence that her car suffered major damage and the substantial intrusion on her liberty.
The case is State v. Smathers, (13-496).