Reigning in the 'Community Caretaking' Doctrine

May 10, 2007. Reigning in the 'Community Caretaking' Doctrine.

In an appeal briefed and argued by NH DWI defense lawyer Theodore Lothstein, the Court held that the stop of the defendant's vehicle and all evidence derived therefrom - including the entire basis for the criminal prosecution - should have been suppressed by the trial court. State v. Craveiro,155 N.H. 422(May 10, 2007).

Police chief parks in middle (dry portion) of flooded road, trying to figure out how to deal with flooding from heavy rains. Craveiro tries to drive around police chief's cruiser, right through the flooded portion of the road (essentially, car drives through deep puddle). Chief stops Craveiro.

The trial court upheld the stop under the community caretaking doctrine as a nonpretextual effort to safeguard the property of others.

The Court held the community caretaking doctrine can apply to such situations, but these facts did not support a community caretaking stop, because the water was not very deep, and because the chief's actions in allowing Craveiro to drive on after he got an emergency call suggested that there really was no need to stop this car from going through a puddle.

With this decision, the Supreme Court sent a message that courts need to scrutinize "community caretaking" claims by law enforcement carefully, and with skepticism.

This case is, indeed, the fifth time in recent years that the Court has suppressed the fruits of a seizure or search where the police claimed a community caretaking or similar non-investigative, benevolent, justification. The other four are State v. D'Amour, 150 N.H. 122 (2003); State v. Denoncourt, 149 N.H. 308 (2003); State v. Boyle, 148 N.H. 306 (2002); State v. Seavey, 147 N.H. 304 (2001). That list should make a trial court think twice about knee-jerk reliance on this doctrine to uphold a search or seizure.

Beware of cops claiming that they stopped a car that, say, crossed the fog line twice, not out of suspicion of a NH DWI, but rather out of the goodness of their hearts — concern that the driver was ill, tired, falling asleep.... Impairment is impairment, whether by alcohol, illness or fatigue.

The determination of whether a motor vehicle was lawful should not depend on whether the officer claims a benevolent purpose (ill driver) or an investigative purpose.

Any such principle would encourage police manipulation and perjury, and any such principle would be illogical, because even a trained police officer can't tell from a distance whether a driver twice crossed the fog line due to a NH DWI, DWT (driving while tired), DWS (driving while senile, which BTW is legal in Florida), DWQRA (Driving While feeling Queasy after eating the Riblets at Applebees), etc.

- Ted Lothstein

Categories: DWI News