'Community care taking' is a form of consensual encounter with a law enforcement officer who may initiate the encounter in looking out for public safety and welfare. When a community care taking encounter is considered consensual, it does not a require a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion. Yet legal disputes about the nature of the encounter may arise. Tennessee courts use an objective standard to consider whether the encounter was consensual or a seizure. In the recent case of State v. Mustafa, E2013-00960-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 4-7-2014), the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling suppressing evidence of DUI, on the conclusion that the Defendant reasonably felt seized, even though the police officer's subjective intent was to be helpful.
In the Mustafa case, the Defendant was driving in Gatlinburg on Highway 441. A vehicle in front of him came to an abrupt stop, causing the Defendant to have to stop abruptly behind. The Defendant's vehicle stopped very close to the vehicle in front of him, but did not contact that vehicle. A police officer driving his patrol vehicle observed this and stopped behind the Defendant. The officer activated an amber directional light for safety, exited his vehicle, and approached the Defendant's vehicle to see whether the occupant needed assistance. Upon talking to the Defendant, the officer observed that the Defendant was intoxicated. The Defendant was arrested and charged with DUI.
The trial court, after hearing the evidence at the suppression hearing, concluded that the police officer's intent was to be helpful, but that a reasonable person in the Defendant's position would feel seized and that he was not allowed to leave. The trial court granted the Defendant's motion to exclude the evidence and dismissed the charge. The State appealed.
The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling, noting that the Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted a more difficult standard for the State than exists under federal law, when attempting to justify an encounter as community care taking. In a concurring opinion, Judge Bivins suggested that he did not agree with the restrictive standard adopted by the state Supreme Court, though he was bound to follow it in his analysis of the case. He also noted he did not agree that the fact of the amber safety light being activated should have weighed toward the conclusion that a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave. The fact that only the safety light was activated and not the vehicle's blue lights, in Judge Bivins' view, was a fact that should weigh in the State's favor in determining whether the encounter was a seizure.
It may be worth noting that the Tennessee Supreme Court appears to be divided in their view of how to analyze community care taking encounters. It will be interesting to see whether they decide to review this particular case and issue further.
For more information on when a police encounter becomes a seizure, contact Hindman & Associates.