On March 23, 2022, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Mason[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to the community caretaker function exception to the probable cause and warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Mason are as follows:
At around 2:40 pm on January 29, 2020, the Willoughby Hills Police Department received a call reporting that two unresponsive persons were slumped over in a vehicle parked by the pumps at a local gas station. The vehicle was not running, and a customer believed that its occupants had been there for thirty to forty-five minutes.
Two officers were dispatched to the scene to respond to what appeared to be an overdose. Officer Anderson arrived first and parked his cruiser in front of the vehicle. Officer Mino arrived soon after, parking his cruiser behind and off to the right side of the vehicle.
When Mino arrived, Anderson was already trying to wake the occupants by knocking on the vehicle’s windows and yelling for their attention. Approaching the vehicle, Mino noticed that the windows were fogged up, making it difficult to see inside and leading him to think that the occupants had been there for some time. Mino was unable to see any indication of illegal activity in the vehicle. What Mino saw instead was a female slumped to the right in the driver’s seat, and another occupant slumped to the left in the passenger seat. Neither was moving. The passenger turned out to be Mason.
The officers had some difficulty rousing the vehicle’s occupants. Both officers repeatedly knocked on its windows and Mino, who was standing on the passenger-side, yelled into the car, but to no avail. The occupants’ unresponsiveness led Mino to conclude that they “had overdosed or were unconscious on something.” Believing that he and Anderson would need “to render aid,” Mino retrieved a baton from his cruiser to break one of the vehicle’s windows.
This proved to be unnecessary. After Mino collected his baton, he and Anderson were able to wake the driver. She remained relatively unresponsive and incoherent, however, and as the officers asked her to unlock the doors, she repeatedly hit the lock button. Eventually, she did unlock the doors, at which point Mino opened the passenger-side door.
Inside the vehicle, Mason sat slumped over as he had been when Mino first arrived. Mason was breathing but unresponsive when Mino spoke to him. This led Mino to administer a sternum rub on Mason to try to wake him. The rub failed: Mason awoke only momentarily before quickly passing out again.
Mino also observed other features of the vehicle that he had not noticed before opening the door. The interior smelled strongly of alcohol and there was an open bottle of gin on the center console. There was ammunition visible on the car’s floorboard. And there was a black holster under Mason’s hands, which Mino later testified to be “a red flag . . . that there was possibly going to be a firearm in the vehicle.”
The prediction was correct. When the sternum rub failed to wake Mason, Mino decided to remove Mason from the car. Paramedics had since arrived on the scene, and they helped Mino extract Mason. As Mino and the paramedics did so, a firearm fell from Mason’s pants. Mino secured the weapon and ran Mason’s license, which resulted in Mino discovering that Mason had outstanding arrest warrants. Because both Mason and the driver were arrested, the vehicle was towed. An inventory search later uncovered a loaded thirty-round magazine, an ammunition box with additional ammunition, the loose ammunition that Mino had already observed on the floorboard, and the open bottle of gin from the center console. Mason was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2), and with possession of a firearm by a person with a prior misdemeanor domestic-violence conviction, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(9) and 924(a)(2).[ii]
Mason was subsequently charged with federal weapons offenses. He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the officer violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment when he opened the passenger side door without probable cause. The district court denied the motion and held that the officer’s opening of the door was justified under the “community caretaking function.” Mason pleaded guilty with the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He then filed a timely appeal with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Mason argued that the officer’s decision to open the car door was investigatory in nature, and as such, the evidence, that was in plain view once the door was opened, should be suppressed.
The court of appeals first noted that, while normally the Fourth Amendment requires a probable cause and a warrant to conduct a search, there is an exception to this when officers are engaged in “their roles as community caretakers.”[iii] The court of appeals then noted the legal principles relevant to the issue and stated
Cognizant of the different roles that law-enforcement agents play in society, the community-caretaker exception allows officers to perform certain tasks that are not “traditional law-enforcement functions” without a warrant. Taylor v. City of Saginaw, 922 F.3d 328, 335 (6th Cir. 2019) (quoting Ziegler v. Aukerman, 512 F.3d 777, 785 (6th Cir. 2008)). “We have found sufficient evidence to justify a caretaking search in cases where the police have been called to the scene of some sort of disturbance or have themselves witnessed persons putting themselves or others in danger.” Dahl v. Kilgore, No. 20-6392, 2021 WL 3929226, at *6 (6th Cir. Sept. 2, 2021) (collecting cases).
HN4 The exception, however, is “narrow.” Taylor, 922 F.3d at 335. An officer’s actions must be “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute” to qualify as “caretaking.” Williams, 354 F.3d at 508 (quoting Cady, 413 U.S. at 441). Time must also be of the essence. If delay is not “reasonably likely to result in injury or ongoing harm to the community at large,” then the police must get a warrant rather than rely on the exception. United States v. Washington, 573 F.3d 279, 289 (6th Cir. 2009). Finally, location matters. Performance of community-caretaking functions may excuse the search of a car, but it is going too far to take this task into a home. Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596, 1599-1600, 209 L. Ed. 2d 604 (2021)[iv]
Simply put, the community caretaking function occurs when officers are engaged in activities completely separate from the investigative or law enforcement function, where a delay in time may result in injury or ongoing harm. The court further stated
The community caretaking function of the police cannot apply where . . . there is significant suspicion of criminal activity.”[v]
Additionally, the court stated that this function allows entry into vehicles, but does not allow entry into homes.
The court then set out to examine if the officer in Mason’s incident opened the car with an investigatory purpose, in order to determine if a crime was being committed. First, the court observed that the officers’ conduct prior to opening the door was consistent with the community caretaking function. The officers believed that the driver and Mason were not responding because they had overdosed, as was the dispatch, and that they needed to render aid. Second, the officers had trouble getting the driver and Mason to wake up, despite it being the middle of the day, and banging on the windows and yelling. Third, while the driver eventually, awoke enough to unlock the doors, she was still incoherent; however, Mason was still unresponsive, even after an officer opened the driver’s door. As such, the court stated that since officers were called to investigate an overdose, and Mason remained unresponsive, it appeared that Mason was in greater need of assistance, therefore, it was reasonable for the officer to open his door. Lastly, the officers did not try to identify Mason and check his criminal history until EMS was treating him, at which time the evidence was already in plain view.
The court did note that after the door was opened, the officer saw evidence that a gun was in the vehicle in plain view and, at this point, the encounter may have become investigatory in nature. However, this was after the door was lawfully opened pursuant to the community caretaking function.
Mason argued that the officer should have asked the driver what was wrong with Mason before opening Mason’s door. However, the court noted that the community caretaking function does not require officers to act in the “least intrusive” way “of protecting the public.” The officer acted reasonably in opening Mason’s door.
Further, Mason argued that because the officers parked a patrol car in front of their car, blocking their vehicle from leaving, this transformed the encounter into an investigatory stop. The court noted, while this is typically correct, the cases in which they have held that blocking a car’s path amounts to an investigatory detention were all incidents where the officers were acting with an investigatory purpose. However, in Mason’s case, officers were not acting with an investigatory purpose, but rather a community caretaking purpose, so the position of the police vehicle was not relevant.
Therefore, in light of the above reasons, the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court that the officers were acting under the community caretaking function when they opened Mason’s door.
[i] No. 21-3225 (6th Cir. Decided March 23, 2022 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-5
[iii] Id. at 7
[iv] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)