High court strikes down extension of community caretaking role to non-vehicle searches

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The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a portion of an Indiana Court of Appeals opinion that extended the law enforcement community caretaker role beyond questions regarding seizures of a vehicle. The justices did affirm the man's cocaine conviction, however, finding his constitutional arguments failed. 

In a November opinion in the case of William McNeal v. State of Indiana, 49S05-1706-CR-405, a unanimous Court of Appeals panel affirmed William McNeal’s conviction of Level 5 felony possession of cocaine, finding McNeal was not unconstitutionally detained in the moments leading up to the discovery of baggies of cocaine in his pocket. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Aaron Helton had handcuffed McNeal after observing him speaking in gibberish and struggling to stand.

A check of McNeal’s identification yielded an outstanding arrest warrant, and a subsequent search incident to arrest led to the discovery of the cocaine. The Court of Appeals upheld the denial of McNeal’s motion to suppress, finding Helton’s decision to detain him was reasonable under the officer’s community caretaking function.

“We emphasize that although prior Indiana courts have either not had occasion or not been inclined to extend the community caretaking exception beyond inventory searches of impounded vehicles, and most recently have extended the community caretaking function only to cases in which a vehicle is involved in some way…it would be illogical to think that a police officer cannot aid a citizen in distress, abate hazards, or perform he ‘infinite variety of other tasks calculated to enhance and maintain the safety of communities’ simply because a vehicle is not involved,” Judge Terry Crone wrote in November.

McNeal sought transfer and asked the Indiana Supreme Court to vacate the portion of the Court of Appeal’s opinion addressing the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, and the high court agreed to do so in a per curiam opinion released Tuesday. Specifically, the justices vacated the final sentence of Section 1, the entirety of Section 1.1, the first phrase of Section 1.2 and the second sentence of the paragraph numbered 25 in the Court of Appeals opinion, each of which discussed law enforcement’s community caretaking role.

However, the high court summarily affirmed the remaining portions of the opinion, including that McNeal’s detention did not violate the Fourth Amendment because “police had reasonable suspicion he ‘had committed, or was about to commit, the crime of public intoxication.’” Further, the high court agreed there was no violation of Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.

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