Anytime a law enforcement officer detains an individual, they must demonstrate that they have reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts that the person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity. Additionally, before an officer can search or arrest someone, they must have probable cause to believe that a crime is, was or is about to be committed. These standards are consistently challenged by law enforcement. Frequently, officers will use ‘welfare checks’ as a guise for wrongfully stopping, searching, detaining and arresting individuals.
For example, imagine an individual is driving along the road and sees a police officer behind them. So far, they have been following all the appropriate traffic laws, but decide to – legally – pull over on to the shoulder to let the officer pass. Instead, the officer pulls in behind them and flips on their lights. When they approach the vehicle, they ask whether or not the individual is okay. But, they might then to ask more questions of that individual, resulting in an arrest for drugs or alcohol. If the driver did not break any traffic laws or regulations before he was stopped, and there was no reason for the police officer to believe they were involved in criminal activity, then there is an argument that the police officer inappropriately stopped that individual and their subsequent arrest is invalid.
Courts in Texas have had multiple opportunities to determine whether or not this ‘community caretaking function’ of police officers can justify a warrantless stop. A search is not unreasonable if done under this function, but it is a very narrow exception to the general rule. Factors to determine whether or not the exception should apply come from the Wright case. The factors to determine whether the officer was legitimately stopping someone based on their role as community caretaker are: the nature and level of the distress from the individual, their location, whether or not the individual was alone or had help independent of the officer, and to what extent the individual, without assistance, presented a danger to himself or others.
In one case, Cameron Byram v. The State of Texas, an officer was patrolling a bar district in downtown Fort Worth around 5:30 p.m. At a red light, he noticed the vehicle next to him had a female passenger hunched over and motionless. He shouted at the driver, asking if his passenger was okay. The driver did not respond. When the light turned green, the driver drove off, and the officer was concerned he was trying to avoid contact with the police. There had been no traffic violations observed by the officer when he pulled him over to check on the passenger. She was barely conscious and had vomited all over the vehicle. The officer requested an ambulance, but she refused medical assistance. And although the officer admitted he had had no real reason to believe the driver was intoxicated at the time he pulled him over, he later believed he was drunk and arrested him.
The appellant pled guilty but retained his right to appeal on his challenge to the traffic stop. On appeal, he argued that the traffic stop was an unreasonable seizure, and the court agreed. Before stopping the vehicle, the officer lacked any reasonable suspicion that the defendant had been engaged in criminal activity, meaning the stop was unreasonable. However, the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. While a police officer cannot use the ‘community caretaking function’ if he is mainly motivated by a non-community caretaking purpose, it felt that, under the four factors of Wright, the police officer rightfully pulled the vehicle over.
In another, similar case, an officer noticed a vehicle pull over on the highway, legally around 1 a.m., before a woman leaned out the window and vomited. The driver then pulled away. The police officer pulled them over as part of his community caretaking function. The woman, although in gastric distress, did not appear to be in any danger that the driver could not help her with. The driver told the officer everything was okay when he was asked, at which point the officer smelled alcohol. The driver failed the field sobriety tests and was then arrested for driving while intoxicated. Notably, the officer did not know where the driver was coming from and did not suspect the driver of criminal activity at the time he pulled the vehicle over. The court, in this case, did not believe this was a reasonable stop. The officer’s concerns were not supported by reasonable facts, and the reasons for the stop given by the officer were speculative.
Clearly, given the various conclusions drawn by the courts under fairly similar standards, these cases are extremely fact-specific and rely heavily on evidence and testimony. In these matters, having an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side is crucial to your case. If you believe your case is similar to the ones above, and that you were wrongfully stopped and arrested, contact the Napier Law Firm for a free, initial consultation today at 713 – 470 – 4097.
Written by Danielle Prado & George Napier, 2019