Can Police Just Start Poking Around if I’m Just Sitting in my Parked Car?

By Bo Kalabus
Office: 972-562-7549
24-Hour Jail Release 214-402-4364

Sure, police can, but only if they were properly motivated. Why? It’s called the community caretaking function. As part of a police officer’s duty to “serve and protect” an officer may stop and assist an individual whom a reasonable person, given the totality of the circumstances, would believe is in need of help.

Community caretaking may be used in situations where:
• A vehicle has a flat tire
• Stopped in the middle of the road
• Pulled over on the side of the road
• Hitting a curb
• Reckless driving
• Weaving outside a lane of traffic
• Vomiting out a window
• Driving under the speed limit
• Etc….

It’s sounds like community caretaking may be an easy excuse for police to pull people over or approach a parked car to start a DWI or other type of investigation without actually having reasonable suspicion. Well, the courts appreciate that this could happen and the Court of Criminal Appeals held in <em>Wright v. State</em>, 7 S.W.23rd 148 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999) that the community caretaking function in Texas will have narrow applicability–Only in the most unusual circumstances will warrantless searches of private, fixed property, or stops of persons located thereon, be justified under the community caretaking function.

What this means is when a court is reviewing a stop based on the community caretaking function, it must first ask a threshold question: Was the officer primarily motivated to make the stop out of concern for the welfare of the individual? If the answer to the question is NO, then the community caretaking function cannot be used as reason for the stop–remember, a police officer may not properly invoke his community caretaking function if he is primarily motivated by a non-community caretaking purpose.

If it is determined that an officer was primarily motivated by his community caretaking function, the next question is whether the officer’s belief that the defendant needed help is reasonable. To help make this determination, the Court in <em>Wright </em>gave us a list of factors:

• The nature and level of the distress exhibited by the individual–this factor is given the most weight by the reviewing court;
• Location of the individual–was the vehicle in an isolated spot, near a neighborhood, in a dangerous location, etc.;
• Whether the individual was alone and/or had access to assistance independent of that offered by the officer–was the individual alone, did they have access to a phone, etc.; and
• To what extent the individual-if not assisted-presented a danger to himself or others–would a reasonable person believe there was a danger?

As you can see, community caretaking is an issue that may come up when defending a criminal case. If you find yourself facing charges that stem from a detention based under the guise of the community caretaking function, you should obtain counsel that will aggressively explore the true motivations of the officer for the detention.


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