Growing up in the Midwest, everyone is familiar with the saying “North Dakota Nice” or “Minnesota Nice.” It is a common phrase used to describe the people that live in this region. That is because most of us Midwesterners were taught as children to help people in need. Whether it’s pushing an elderly woman’s vehicle out of a snow bank from a recent Fargo blizzard, or assisting a young motorist change a flat tire, Midwesterners always seem to try and help out their fellow human. But what if the help you are receiving is from a law enforcement officer? In the legal community, the act of an officer assisting a motorist or bystander is referred to as a community caretaking function. You might ask what is a community caretaking function? How does a community caretaking function work? Can you be cited for a crime by a law enforcement officer acting in a community caretaking function? Uffda, that’s a lot of information to take in. To properly analyze these questions, we need to start by breaking down what the community caretaking function is.
What Is The Community Caretaking Function?
North Dakota courts have long recognized several permissible types of law enforcement-citizen encounters, including 1) arrests, which must be supported by probable cause; 2) Terry stops, which are seizures that must be supported by reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity; and 3) community caretaking encounters. If your encounter does not fall under one of these circumstances, or if the requisite legal threshold hasn’t been met, your seizure may have been unlawful and violated your Fourth Amendment rights. This can result in evidence being suppressed or charges dismissed.
The United States Supreme Court described the community caretaking function as those encounters “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Essentially, it is lawful for a law enforcement officer to approach an individual as long as he is not investigating a crime. However, a community caretaking function can transform into a seizure if the officers’ actions, if done by another private citizen, would be viewed as threatening or offensive. This conduct can be an order, a threat, a display of a weapon, boxing-in a vehicle, approaching all sides of a vehicle with multiple officers, or using emergency lights as a show of authority. If this type of conduct occurs, a law enforcement officer transformed the community caretaking encounter into a Terry stop, which requires reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed. So, when may a community caretaking function be used by law enforcement?
How Did I Get A DUI When I Was Not Violating The Law?
The North Dakota Supreme Court has heard a bunch of cases regarding the community caretaking function. In some cases, an officer has come across a driver slumped over a steering wheel or sleeping in a motel parking lot. The Court has also heard cases when an individual failed to proceed around the scene of an accident with the rest of traffic, and when an officer approached a driver after she drove to the shoulder of a gravel road and stopped her vehicle. In each of these instances, the officer acted in a community caretaking capacity because the contact was totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a crime. However, the Court has also held that there is not a community caretaking function when the officer blocks a vehicle’s rear exit or activates his emergency lights and follows a vehicle.
For example, let’s say you had a long day at work and it’s almost 10:00 p.m. before you leave the office. To de-stress, you go and have a few beers with some of your friends. You decide to drive home but halfway through your journey, you realize that you probably should not be driving. You stop at a local gas station to take a quick snooze. Before you fall asleep, you legally park your vehicle, lay your seat back, and fall asleep. You wake up to the sound of tapping on your window and a local officer is looking at you through the window. You proceed by rolling down your window and explaining the current situation to the officer. However, while you are speaking, the officer notices an odor of alcohol, your bloodshot watery eyes, and your slurred speech. Despite what you explained to the officer, you find yourself in the back seat of his squad car being charged with Actual Physical Control of a Motor Vehicle. (If you are unfamiliar with the crime of Actual Physical Control or have questions, look at one of our recent blogs). This is a possible example of the community caretaking function because the officer was concerned about your well-being. Although the officer eventually arrested you, the court may find that the initial encounter was not to investigate a suspected crime.
However, this hypothetical could have turned out much differently depending on the law enforcement officer’s conduct prior to the encounter. For example, an officer pulling behind your vehicle, blocking your exit, and/or activating his emergency lights are all facts that would need to be carefully considered by the court. As you can see, encounters with officers are extremely fact-specific. If you think you may have been illegally seized, contact us now. For more information regarding the community caretaking function outside of a vehicle, read part two in the next criminal defense blog.
Charges that stem from a law enforcement officer acting in a community caretaking function are complex, and seeking legal representation may be in your best interest to ensure that your constitutional rights are being protected.
If you have a criminal issue in North Dakota, please do not hesitate to call our Criminal Defense Team in Fargo at 701-297-2890.
This article is only meant to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice.