A police officer was not within his community caretaker function when he pulled over a woman who left a gas station after she escaped from getting stuck under car, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled. The public safety issue did not outweigh her right to privacy.
Officer James Arnold arrived on a scene at a gas station just after Mary Osborne had managed to get herself free after she had gotten stuck under her car. Arnold saw her drive away and though she did not commit any traffic violations stopped her because he said he wanted to make sure she did not need any medical attention. As he was talking to her he noticed her slurred speech, the odor of alcohol on her breath and red, watery eyes. He conducted sobriety tests on her and tested her blood alcohol, which was at 0.12. She was charged with misdemeanors operating a vehicle while intoxicated in a manner that endangers a person, and operating a vehicle with an alcohol concentration equivalent to at least .08 grams of alcohol.
Osborne filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained because it was a warrantless seizure and claimed that violated her Fourth Amendment rights as well as Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The trial court denied her motion, but granted a motion for interlocutory appeal.
The state contended Arnold was exercising his “community caretaker” function when he stopped Osborne, but the COA majority disagreed. In the opinion written by Judge Patricia Riley, she wrote that a valid community caretaker exception has three parts, and this stop fails on the third. There was a seizure when the stop was conducted, and the conduct was bona fide community caretaker activity. However, Riley wrote “the public need and interest did not outweigh the intrusion into Osborne’s privacy.”
When Arnold got the call to check on a person stuck under a car and then that she was leaving, the dispatcher never mentioned Arnold needed additional help, and Arnold did not observe any reason to suspect she would need help. Also, if Osborne needed help, she could have asked for help at the gas station.
“If there had been any articulable facts prior to the stop to support Officer Arnold’s belief that Osborne was in immediate need of assistance – such as more details about the nature of the incident from the individual who called or any indication that Osborne sustained injuries which affected her ability to drive – then our conclusion would likely be different,” Riley wrote. “Instead, based on the facts before this court, we cannot say that Officer Arnold’s traffic stop was justified pursuant to his community caretaking function.”
The COA reversed the trial court’s decision denying Osborne’s motion to suppress and remanded it to the trial court for further proceedings. Judge James Kirsch dissented in the case but did not provide a separate opinion.
The case is Mary Osborne v. State of Indiana, 29A02-1511-CR-1931.