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Community Caretaking

In many OWI cases in Des Moines, Iowa, the criminal defense attorney will move to suppress evidence gathered because the law enforcement officer’s seizure of the defendant and the defendant’s vehicle was not justifiable under the Fourth Amendment and article 1, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. In many of these cases, law enforcement officers do not actually see the defendant driving a vehicle. If the defendant wasn’t actually driving the vehicle, the officer might allege that the defendant was in “actual physical control” of the vehicle when the vehicle is parked on the side of the road or in a parking lot.

What happens if you were arrested for OWI and you were not even driving? Although the officer might have no probable cause that a crime was committed and observed no traffic violation, the officer might approach the vehicle, detain you, and order you to exit the vehicle for an OWI investigation. Although such an encounter is normally illegal, the State will often argue that the case involves the “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement.

“Community caretaking” is one exception to the warrant requirement. The United States Supreme Court recognized this exception because local police officers “frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973).

Three Step Analysis in Community Caretaking Cases

As explained in State v. Crawford, 659 N.W.2d 537, 543 (Iowa 2003), community caretaking cases use the following three-step analysis:

  1. the court will ask whether a seizure occurred within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment;
  2. if so, the court will inquire whether the police were conducting “bona fide community caretaker activity”;
  3. if so, the court will ask whether the needs and interests of the public in that activity outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the citizen.

Bona fide community caretaker activity can fall into three categories: emergency aid, impoundment, and inventory, and the public servant exceptions. See State v. Kurth, 813 N.W.2d 270, 277 (Iowa 2012). Our supreme court has explained the “narrow distinction” between the first and third doctrines:

Under the emergency aid doctrine, the officer has an immediate, reasonable belief that a serious, dangerous event is occurring …. [I]n contrast, the officer in a public servant situation might or might not believe that there is a difficulty requiring his general assistance. For example, an officer assists a motorist with a flat tire under the public servant doctrine, but an officer providing first aid to a person slumped over the steering wheel with a bleeding gash on his head acts under the emergency aid doctrine.

Crawford, 659 N.W.2d at 541–42 (quoting Mary E. Naumann, The Community Caretaker Doctrine: Yet Another Fourth Amendment Exception, 26 Am. J.Crim. L. 325, 330–41 (1999)).

In these cases, the defense will argue that the detention of the driver “exceeded the scope of reasonably necessary community caretaking activity.” See Kurth, 813 N.W.2d at 278. In Kurth, the court decided it was not necessary for the officer to block in an already parked vehicle, when all the officer “needed to do was to park next to him and approach him.” Id. In the Kurth decision, the court noted any purported community care-taking function could have been accomplished through a consensual encounter rather than an investigatory stop.

Attorneys Fighting the Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement in Iowa

If you were arrested for OWI even though you were not driving the vehicle at the time law enforcement officers detained you, contact an experienced OWI attorney in Des Moines, Iowa. We can help you determine the best way to fight the case. In many of these cases, your criminal defense attorney will file motions to suppress evidence illegally obtained during an illegal stop, detention or arrest.

Call (515) 279-9700 today to discuss your case during a free and confidential consultation.