Officer Chris Picou was traveling North on I-55 at approximately 1:17 a.m. when he came upon a red Chevrolet SUV with a Texas license plate traveling in the left hand or inside lane. The SUV was traveling approximately 58-60 miles per hour in an area where the minimum posted speed limit is 45 miles per hour and the maximum is 70 miles per hour.
Picou was traveling 70 miles per hour in the left hand lane behind David Trejo, the driver, when he flashed his bright lights for the SUV to move over so that he could pass. When the driver failed to change lanes, Picou flashed his brights two more times, with ten seconds passing between each flash. After the third flash, Picou initiated his blue lights, and the driver immediately pulled onto the interstate shoulder.
Picou testified that he pulled over the SUV because he was concerned the driver was intoxicated or tired. Picou testified that he did not stop the SUV based on any traffic violation. Picou also testified there was no traffic in the right lane which would have prevented him from passing the SUV.
Trejo and a passenger, Pebbles Nutt, were inside the vehicle. The traffic stop eventually led to Picou finding two kilograms of cocaine on Nutt’s clothing at her midsection. Trejo was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to sell and sentenced to 60 years.
The MCOA reversed the conviction and held that there was no reasonable suspicion or probable cause for the stop so the cocaine was suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. The MSC then heard the case to see if there was a community caretaking exception that would apply for stopping the vehicle.
After review, MSC agreed with MCOA that there was no reasonable suspicion or probable cause for the stop. Additionally, they said there was no community caretaking exception in this case. Thus, the cocaine was suppressed.
The U.S. Supreme Court first applied the community caretaking function in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the search of an impounded automobile after its driver, an off-duty police officer, was arrested for drunk driving after reporting an accident. The police searched the vehicle without a warrant to look for the off duty officer’s service revolver and found evidence of another crime.
We find no reasoned argument in support of a categorical refusal to apply the community caretaking exception to vehicle stops, and we conclude that the community caretaking function in Cady may apply in contexts other than inventory searches, as the police provide many functions apart from investigating criminal activity.
But only under appropriate circumstances may a law enforcement officer be fully justified in stopping a vehicle to provide assistance, without needing any reasonable basis to suspect criminal activity. In applying the community caretaking function, the ultimate standard is reasonableness.
The question becomes whether a reasonable person, given the totality of the circumstances, would believe the individual is in need of help or that the safety of the public is endangered.
However, courts must carefully analyze the totality of the circumstances, so that the community caretaking function is cautiously and narrowly applied in order to minimize the risk that it will be abused or used as a pretext for conducting an investigatory stop and search for criminal evidence.
In this case, we are unable to conclude that a reasonable person would have believed Trejo was in need of help or that the public was endangered. Because of the risk of danger to a driver as well as the traveling public, we agree that it would be reasonable for a police officer to stop an individual who appears to be falling asleep while driving.
However, the facts presented here simply do not support such an inference. There was no evidence of erratic driving. Trejo was traveling approximately 10- 12 miles per hour below the maximum speed limit of 70 miles per hour and well above the minimum speed limit of 45 miles per hour in the left hand lane around 1:00 a.m.
We do not think his speed was so slow that a reasonable person would believe it indicative of distress. We also do not find that Trejo’s failure to change lanes after Picou flashed his bright lights was necessarily indicative of distress, nor was it so when considered with the other facts.
Picou flashed his bright lights in quick succession on a deserted stretch of interstate. And no traffic prevented Picou from passing Trejo in the right lane.
Therefore, we find that the facts presented at the suppression hearing do not justify a reasonable belief that Trejo needed help or that the public was endangered, and as such, the trial court should have granted Trejo’s motion to suppress.
So the MSC (in a plurality decision) says community caretaking can be used for traffic stops without having reasonable suspicion or probable cause but not in this case. So what are some examples that would qualify? Here is what the MSC said:
- Officer observing lug nuts missing from a vehicle’s wheel;
- An automobile traveling toward a washed out bridge;
- Gasoline leaking from a car or truck;
- A delivery truck with an unsecured cargo door;
- A vehicle with an under inflated tire;
- An RV with an unlatched hatch cover flapping in the breeze.