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October 09, 2015

Community Caretaking Police Function

CaseState of Tennessee v. Kenneth McCormick

Issue:  Can the police seize and detain citizens when acting as a “community caretaker”?

Facts:  Officer saw Defendant parked in a parking lot late at night, with one wheel partially in the roadway. Officer parked in the roadway behind the vehicle and turned on his back blue lights for safety. Officer approached and observed the car running with headlights on, with Defendant slumped over the wheel. Officer opened to door to awake Defendant and noticed an odor of alcohol and an empty beer bottle. The trial court declined to suppress the stop, and Defendant was convicted of DUI.

Appellate Decision:  The intermediate court affirmed the conviction because Officer was acting as a “community caretaker” in parking behind the vehicle, activating his lights (for safety), knocking on the window, and attempting to get a response from Defendant. Accordingly, the Officer did not need to show reasonable suspicion and had not “seized” Defendant at the time Officer noticed the alcohol odor and empty bottle.

Review Granted:  September 25, 2015.

Prediction:  The Supreme Court’s Order granting review requested briefing on whether the Court should “revisit its holding in State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170 (Tenn. 2013) and prior Tennessee decisions that limited the community caretaking doctrine to third-tier consensual police-citizen encounters.” In Moats, Justices Clark and Koch dissented, advocated joining the majority rule that “community caretaking” should be an exception to the warrant requirement rather than a type of consensual encounter. The changing makeup of the Court creates a real possibility of a sudden reversal, but Ben believes Moats has provided a workable framework that protects citizens’ rights and should not be disturbed.