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Community Care Taking Not a Substitute for a Warrant in Tennessee

Another 'community care taking' case has recently been addressed by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. 'Community care taking' generally refers to the role of law enforcement authorities in checking on the welfare of people who may be distressed. In many jurisdictions, it is one of the recognized exceptions to the general requirement that a police officer must have a warrant to conduct a search or seizure. Tennessee courts, in recent decisions, have adopted the view that it is not, under Tennessee law, an exception. Consent is still an exception. But an encounter is not always consensual just because an officer may be legitimately acting in community care taking capacity. In the recent case of State v. Shouse, M2013-00863-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 4-21-2014), the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling excluding evidence of a DUI offense where the evidence was discovered by a police officer checking on the welfare of motorist who appeared to be unconscious inside a truck.

In the Shouse case, the police officer noticed a truck parked in a grocery store parking lot at 11:00 p.m. The defendant was inside the truck and appeared to be "passed out." The officer could not tell if the defendant was even breathing. The defendant did not respond when the officer knocked on the window. The keys were visibly in the ignition. The officer opened the truck door and was able to awaken the defendant, who smelled strongly of alcohol. The defendant had difficulty performing field sobriety tests and was arrested for DUI.

The trial court excluded the evidence, finding that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to enter the defendant's truck. There had been no reports of a crime in the area and the defendant wasn't obviously violating any laws by being parked in the store parking lot at 11:00 p.m. With the exclusion of the evidence, the charge was dismissed. Reviewing the case pursuant to the State's appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling, agreeing that the police officer's concern for the defendant's well being was not an exception to the warrant requirement and that no exception applied in this case.

For more information on community care taking or whether a search or seizure is reasonable, contact Hindman & Associates.

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