At the center of an Indiana Supreme Court oral argument Thursday was the question of when exigent circumstances and an officer’s community caretaker role trump a citizen’s right to protection from unlawful searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.
According to Angela Sanchez, a deputy attorney general who argued before the court on behalf of the state in Mary Hannah Osborne v. State of Indiana, 29S02-1608-CR-00433, such exceptions come into play when officers receive a call to respond to an unusual situation that would cause a reasonable person to believe that someone could be hurt.
That’s what Sanchez said happened in the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 2014. That morning, Fishers Police Department Officer Jason Arnold received a call about a woman stuck underneath her car at a local gas station. When Arnold arrived at the scene within one minute of the call, Mary Osborne had freed herself and was driving away.
Although Osborne did not commit any traffic violations, Arnold stopped her car to check if she was OK. Almost immediately after beginning his conversation with Osborne, Arnold testified that he smelled alcohol on her breath, noticed that her speech was slurred and saw that her eyes were red and watery.
Arnold then asked Osborne to complete field sobriety tests and tested her blood alcohol content, which came back at 0.12. She was arrested and 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.
Sanchez argued that Arnold’s stop of Osborne was lawful because he genuinely believed that she might have been hurt after being stuck under the car and unable to drive safely due to an injury, particularly a head injury.
But in May 2016, a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals decided that Arnold was not within his community caretaker role at the time of the stop, and that her right to privacy was not outweighed by the public safety issue that Arnold raised.
Jennifer Lukemeyer, a defense attorney with Voyles Zahn and Paul who argued on behalf of Osborne, brought a similar argument before the court Thursday, saying Arnold did not have enough facts about Osborne’s situation to justify the stop.
As she was driving away, Osborne showed no signs of impairment and even went so far as to turn on her turn signal to pull over and then put on her hazard lights during the stop, showing a steady state of mind, Lukemeyer said.
Additionally, Arnold’s decision to ask Osborne to complete a field sobriety tests showed that he believed that her mental state was at least well enough to follow his directions during the test, Lukemeyer said. If he had truly believed she was too impaired to drive because of her injury, he would not have asked her to complete the tests, she said.
But Sanchez argued that Arnold was responding to an “extraordinarily unusual” call about a woman stuck under her car – one that prompted four other officers to respond, as well. Further, Sanchez said Arnold didn’t know why Osborne was driving away. She could have been heading to the hospital or to get some other form of help, the deputy attorney general said.
Justice Mark Massa said the case was a “close call” between the right to privacy and an officer’s duty to ensure public safety and welfare and asked Sanchez to speculate about the legal consequences of coming down on the side of privacy.
“If you lose, is it a real tragedy for law enforcement?” he asked Sanchez.
The deputy attorney general said deciding against the state in the Osborne case could cause a law enforcement official to hesitate to provide aid to someone unless there was evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the injured person. However, Justice Steve David said ruling in favor of a person’s right to privacy would still allow a law enforcement officer to provide aid to someone who is obviously hurt without any evidence of wrongdoing.
Regardless, Sanchez said the U.S. Supreme Court has established that “special law enforcement concerns” can justify traffic stops without individualized suspicion. In this case, Sanchez argued that the unusual call the officer received about a woman stuck under her car should be considered a special law enforcement concern.
Conversely, Massa asked Lukemeyer how ruling in favor of the state would lead to a “parade of abuses” of officers’ rights to conduct welfare checks, as she suggested during her argument.
Lukemeyer said such checks should be based on direct knowledge, not speculation of injury, which she said was all Arnold had when he decided to stop Osborne. Further, the fact that Osborne had driven away within one minute of Arnold receiving the call points calls into question whether she was actually stuck under the car and suggests that she was not severely injured.
“I do see the potential for abuse, because once you say, ‘OK, this is clearly welfare, someone could be injured,’ then it could be applied so arbitrarily that I don’t think…you would be able to apply the objectively reasonable test,” she said.