The Court of Appeals in Steven Davis v. U.S., in an opinion issued on February 26, 2015, expounded and analyzed the doctrine of “community exception” to warrantless search and seizure.
Davis was convicted for possession of two zip lock bags of cocaine found in plain view and in his vehicle. The issue on appeal was whether the office had entered Davis’ vehicle pursuant to reasonable exercise of community caretaking function rather than pursuant to a criminal investigation.
Factually, the police were alerted when a vehicle was found blocking the entrance to a private apartment building lot. Upon responding, the officer found Davis at the driver’s seat unconscious, EMT were contacted and responded, Davis was woken up and was responsive and exited the vehicle. While Davis had exited the vehicle and was being checked over by EMT and reorienting, the officer had entered the vehicle to move it — at which time observed in plain view two zip lock bags on the floorboard.
On appeal, Davis essentially argued that the plain-view doctrine required that the officer be lawfully in a viewing position, here the office had no legal basis to enter the vehicle to move it as Davis had regain consciousness and himself could have move the vehicle. That his constitutionally protected privacy rights to his vehicle was violated in violation of the 4th Amendment protection.
The Court defined the community caretaking exception as “ that police officers “frequently . . . engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community care taking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”
The community caretaking exception is dictated by the ambulatory character of a vehicle, a necessity to enforce traffic law with a police officer having a non-criminal investigatory intent.
The Court further expounded “police will often remove vehicles to ‘permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic’ and will . . . frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. Accordingly, in determining whether a police officer’s entry into a vehicle violated a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights or instead was lawful under the community caretaking exception, courts look to whether the police action was reasonable in the circumstances.”
For example the exception allows the police officer to enter an unlocked running car intending to protect themselves and public from the possible danger created by the unattended car or to enforce traffic laws and regulations. The police officers action must be reasonable under the circumstances and his intent detached and divorced from all criminal investigatory intent.
In another example of such exception, the court held that after arrest for trespassing while the defendant left car running – officer’s entry to move the vehicle from the handicap spot, to shut off engine and lock the car was a reasonable and proper exercise of the “community exception.”
Accordingly here, the Court held that the police officer’s entry to the vehicle was — divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute –- and under the circumstances the office acted reasonably.
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