Community care taking is one of the functions of law enforcement. A police officer performing a community care taking function needs no additional objective justification (reasonable suspicion or probable cause) for an encounter with members of the public. Community care taking encounters are considered consensual. A police officer may approach a car parked in public and ask for driver identification and proof of registration without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. A police officer may also check on a distressed driver. In the recent case of State v. Lowe, M2012-01741-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 7-5-2013), the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found it reasonable for a police officer to open the door of a vehicle to check on a possibly distressed driver.
In the Lowe, case, a concerned citizen observed a vehicle, with the engine running, parked just off the side of the road in a parking area used by her and her neighbor. Concerned that a visitor of the neighbor may have accidentally left the engine running, and receiving no response at the neighbor's door, the citizen approached the vehicle to see if the doors were locked. Opening a vehicle door, she observed the Defendant slumped inside. Unable to wake him up, she turned the engine off and called the police.
A police officer arrived, observed the Defendant in the vehicle, and knocked on the window. When the Defendant did not respond, the officer opened the door and was able to wake up the Defendant. The officer smelled alcohol on the Defendant, and after field sobriety tests, arrested the Defendant for DUI. The Defendant had a blood alcohol content of .24.
The Defendant pled guilty to DUI, but reserved a certified question of law for appeal, regarding whether the police officer had justification to open the door of the Defendant's vehicle (which then led to the discovery of the evidence of DUI). The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court ruling that the police officer's action in opening the door to check on the driver was reasonable and justified under the circumstances.
For more information on whether a particular police encounter with an individual may be reasonable or unreasonable, contact Hindman & Associates.