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Utah Supreme Court Explains Community Caretaker Exception to Warrant Requirement and Grants Motion to Suppress of Defendant Convicted of DUI Found Sleeping in Parked Car at 24-Hour Restaurant

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Utah explained the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement and reversed the Court of Appeals’ (“COA”) affirmance of a district court’s denial of Brett Smith’s motion to suppress evidence obtained without a warrant or applicable exception to the warrant requirement in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Around 2:30 a.m. on December 29, 2016, Smith was sleeping in his car in a parking lot of a 24-hour McDonald’s. After the manager’s request for Smith to leave proved unsuccessful, the manager contacted the police to report a man asleep in his car in the parking lot. Police dispatch labeled the call a welfare check.

Officer Schipper arrived and parked directly behind Smith to prevent him from leaving. He observed that Smith’s vehicle was on and running, and the passenger-side window was down. Schipper suspected that it was a possible DUI and waited for the arrival of backup officers before making contact with Smith.

Moments later, two uniformed officers with guns and badges visible arrived in another squad car. They parked alongside Smith’s vehicle in a manner to prevent Smith’s vehicle from leaving the scene. Schipper shined his spotlight into Smith’s vehicle to “gain an advantage over” Smith. An officer at Smith’s passenger-side window was able to rouse Smith from sleep. Smith’s eyes were glazed; he had difficulty speaking and turning off the ignition; an odor of alcoholic beverage emanated from him; and there was a bottle of alcohol in the vehicle. A subsequent breathalyzer test revealed a blood-alcohol content of .135. Smith was arrested and charged with several driving and alcohol-related offenses.

Smith moved to suppress all evidence obtained as the result of the search and seizure that was unlawfully conducted without a warrant and without any applicable exception to the warrant requirement. The district court found Smith was “seized under the Fourth Amendment when the officers parked their patrol cars immediately to the side of and behind Mr. Smith’s car, preventing him from leaving.” The State did not contest this finding but countered that the community caretaking exception applied to the warrantless search and seizure of Smith. The district court, relying on State v. Anderson, 362 P.3d 1232 (Utah 2015), agreed with the State and denied Smith’s suppression motion.

Smith entered a plea pursuant to State v. Sery, 758 P.2d 935 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), preserving his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. A divided panel of the COA, again relying on Anderson, affirmed. State v. Smith, 442 P.3d 251 (Utah Ct. App. 2019). The Utah Supreme Court granted Smith’s petition for certiorari.

The Court noted that Smith had been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes when the police vehicles were positioned in a manner that prevented him from leaving the scene in his vehicle, so the question at issue in the case is whether the State met its burden of rebutting the presumption that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable unless a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies, viz., in this case, the community caretaker exception. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); State v. Christensen, 676 P.2d 408 (Utah 1984).

The Court observed that “[u]nder the Fourth Amendment, defendants enjoy the rebuttable presumption that a search or seizure is unreasonable if effected without a warrant.” Katz. To satisfy the demands of the Fourth Amendment, an impartial judicial officer must grant a warrant based upon probable cause before the search and seizure occurs. Id. Searches and seizures conducted outside this judicial process are — subject to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions — “per se unreasonable.” Id. Evidence obtained as a result of an unreasonable search or seizure violates the Fourth Amendment and is, therefore, subject to suppression and exclusion. Id.

Because the “per se” presumption of unreasonableness applies to all warrantless searches and seizures, in such instances, the burden shifts to the State to prove an exception to the warrant requirement is applicable that rendered the warrantless search or seizure lawful, according to the Court. State v. Worwood, 164 P.3d 397 (Utah 2007).

In the present case, the Court explained that Smith met his burden of showing that he was subjected to a warrantless search and seizure, and thus, the burden shifted to the State to prove that the search and seizure were lawful by establishing that an exception to the warrant requirement applies. See United States v. de la Fuente, 548 F.2d 528 (5th Cir. 1977); United States v. Carhee, 27 F.3d 1493 (10th Cir. 1994).

The State sought to meet its burden by showing the seizure of Smith was justified by the community caretaking exception. The Court stated that “[t]he community caretaking doctrine recognizes that police activity is not limited to criminal investigations. Rather, an officer’s duty to protect and serve extends to helping individuals in the absence of criminal activity. This might include ‘helping stranded motorists, returning lost children to anxious parents, [and] assisting and protecting citizens in need.’” People v. Ray, 981 P.2d 928 (Cal. 1999). While Utah courts recognize the community caretaking exception, Anderson, the “exception is not intended to be a broad, freewheeling exception to the Fourth Amendment.” Smith (Pohlman, J., dissenting). “It must be limited in application to prevent police from ‘us[ing] a suspicionless exception to the Fourth Amendment as a pretext for ordinary criminal investigation.’” Id.

The Court stated that the community caretaking exception requires courts to balance the interests of the State against those of the individual, as described in Anderson as: “In applying this balancing test in the context of a community caretaking stop, courts must first evaluate the degree to which an officer intrudes upon a citizen’s freedom of movement and privacy. In doing so, courts should look both to the degree of overt authority and force displayed in effecting the seizure and the length of the seizure. Second, courts must determine whether the degree of public interest and the exigency of the situation justified the seizure for community caretaking purposes. In other words, how serious was the perceived emergency and what was the likelihood that the motorist may need aid? If the level of the State’s interest in investigating whether a motorist needs aid justifies the degree to which an officer interferes with the motorist’s freedoms in order to perform this investigation, the seizure is not ‘unreasonable’ under the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court contrasted Anderson with the present case. In Anderson, two officers parked their patrol car behind a car stopped alongside a rural road early on a December morning when the temperature was nine below zero. The vehicle wasn’t running, and its emergency flashers were operating. The driver appeared to be slumped over the steering wheel. The Anderson Court determined that the officers’ seizure was “minimally invasive” because Anderson was parked rather than driving down the highway and the circumstances gave the officers reasonable cause to be concerned about the welfare of a motorist in that condition. Thus, the community caretaking exception applied, ruled the Anderson Court.

But Smith was parked in the parking lot of a restaurant open for business. His vehicle was running, and presumably, he had access to the car’s heater. His emergency flashers were not in operation, indicating any type of distress. Upon arrival, Schipper did not immediately approach Smith to inquire if he needed assistance. Instead, Schipper admitted that he suspected a DUI (although there was no evidence giving rise to an articulable reasonable suspicion of DUI or other criminal activity upon arrival on scene), and he called for backup. Schipper and the backup officers blocked Smith’s vehicle to prevent flight, and they used a spotlight to gain an advantage over Smith. These actions, taken together, indicated the officers were concerned with investigating suspected criminal activity, not concerned with either Smith’s or the public’s welfare, the Court determined. Consequently, after applying the Anderson balancing test to the facts of this case, the Court ruled that the State failed to prove that the officers’ intrusion on Smith’s freedom of movement and privacy was justified by the community caretaking exception.

The Court stated “[a]t best, the officers had only a secondary purpose in ascertaining Smith’s wellbeing while simultaneously investigating a DUI; at worst, the officers had no intention to provide aid and merely post-facto sought to justify a warrantless criminal seizure under the community caretaking doctrine. Either way, the exception does not apply.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the COA and granted Smith’s motion to suppress. See: State v. Smith, 513 P.3d 629 (Utah 2022). 

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