Officer Must Show Citizen in Need of Assistance to Apply Community Caretaking Exception

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ November 30, 2017

There are three categories of interaction that occur between an individual and a police officer: 1) a mere encounter; 2) an investigative detention; and 3) an arrest. A mere encounter is a request for information and need not be supported by any level of suspicion. In Terry v. Ohio, the US Supreme Court described an investigative detention as “subject[ing] an individual to a stop and period of detention but is not so coercive as to constitute the functional equivalent of an arrest.” This requires an officer to have a “reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person seized is engaged in criminal activity.” An actual arrest requires the highest suspicion: probable cause.

In a PA v. Livingstone, the PA Supreme Court found that an officer engaged in an investigative detention, rather than a mere encounter with the Defendant when he pulled his patrol car, with its emergency lights activated, alongside her vehicle when it was stopped on the highway. The officer asked the Defendant, Victoria Livingstone, who was the driver and sole passenger of the vehicle, if she was okay; to which she responded affirmatively. However, her glossy eyes and confused demeanor prompted the officer to administer a portable breathalyzer test, which indicated the presence of alcohol. Her BAC was later determined to be .205%.

Ms. Livingstone was charged with DUI and filed a motion to suppress contending that she was “subjected to an investigative detention unsupported by reasonable suspicion.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the trial court and Superior Court and determined that by pulling over with his lights activated, the officer engaged in more than a mere encounter and deemed his actions an investigative detention. In coming to that conclusion, the court concluded that a reasonable motorist would not have felt free to leave under those circumstances.  The Supreme Court noted that the focus of the trial court and Superior Court on the officer’s intentions, rather than the belief of a reasonable motorist, was misplaced.  The inquiry should focus on whether a reasonable motorist would feel free to leave under the circumstances.

Because there was no suspicion of criminal activity, the Commonwealth alternatively asserted that the officer’s actions were justified under the “community caretaking exception,” specifically the public servant provision. This exception applies when a “police officer’s actions are motivated by a desire to render aid or assistance, rather than the investigation of criminal activity.” Thus, it does not require any level of suspicion.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that a reasonableness test should be used to assess whether the community caretaking exception should be applied. First, “police officers must be able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen is in need of assistance.” Second, “the police caretaking action must be independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence.” However, so long as the officer can point to the requisite facts, a “coinciding subjective law enforcement concern by the officer will not negate the validity” of the application of the exception. Third, “the level of intrusion must be commensurate with the perceived need for assistance.” In evaluating the intrusion, courts should consider the “degree of authority or force displayed, the length of the seizure, and the availability of alternative means of assistance.” Finally, “once assistance has been provided and the peril mitigated, further police action” will not be justified under the exception.

In Livingstone, although the officer’s intentions were primarily to provide assistance, “he was unable to articulate any specific and objective facts that would reasonably suggest [Defendant] needed assistance.” Her hazard lights were not flashing. There were no visible signs of distress. The officer had not received reports of a vehicle in need of assistance.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court found that the caretaking exception did not justify the officer’s actions. From this  point forward, all Pennsylvania police officers will be held to the reasonableness test set out in Livingstone. Unless they can articulate the necessary facts to suggest a citizen is in need of assistance, which are independent of other law enforcement concerns, officers cannot detain individuals based on the caretaking exception.

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