Generally, a police officer first initiates contact with a person due to a traffic violation, or to investigate some other violation of the law. During the investigation or detention begins an investigation of Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). There are certain situations where an officer may stop and assist a person whom a reasonable person, given the totality of the circumstances, would believe is in need of help. There are situations in Austin, Texas, where the Austin Police Officer’s initial encounter with a person later arrested for Driving While Intoxicated originated under the officer’s community caretaking function. The police officer’s community caretaking function is an issue that the Texas Courts have addressed on numerous occasions. I must stress that the community caretaking function of an officer is a highly fact based issue, and one that is flux. Meaning that the smallest detail can play a role in whether the officer’s stop was reasonable. The following is the case law associated with the officer’s community care taking function summarized above.
A police officer may seize an individual through the exercise of his community caretaking function. Corbin v. State, 85S.W.3d 272, 276 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002); Wright v. State, 7 S.W.3d 148,151-52 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999).
“As part of an officers’ duty to ‘serve and protect,’ an officer ‘may stop and assist an individual whom a reasonable person given the totality of circumstances, would believe is in need of help.’” Corbin, 85 S.W.3d at 276 (quoting Wright, 7 S.W.3d at 151).
“Once it is determined that an officer is primarily motivated by his community caretaking function, it must then be determined whether the officer’s believe that the defendant needs help is reasonable. Corbin, 85 S.W.3d at 277 (citing Wright, 7.S.W.3d at 151-52).
In evaluating whether an officer reasonably believes that a person needs help, courts may look to a list of four non-exclusive factors:
(1) the nature and level of the distress exhibited by the individual;
(2) the location of the individual;
(3) whether or not the individual was alone and/or had access to assistance other than that offered by the officer; and
(4) to what extent the individual, if not assisted, presented a danger to himself or others.
The first factor is entitled to the greatest weight. Corbin, 85 S.W.3d at 277.
Where the evidence establishes that an officer’s belief that an individual was in need of assistance was not objectively reasonable, a “community caretaking” seizure is not authorized and violates the Fourth Amendment and any evidence obtained as a result of such seizure must be suppressed. Corbin, 85 S.W.3d at 277-78; Wright 7.S.W.3d at 151-52.
Where an officer is not acting on a reliable tip about a suspicious person and the area where the individual was seized was not a “high crime” area, an individual’s nervousness and crying do not rise to the level of anxiety necessary to support a seizure pursuant to the “community caretaking” function. Franks v. State, 241 S.W.3d 135, 143 (Tex. App. – Austin 2008, pet. ref’d.).
My friend Steve Graham’s blog post on DUI’s Under.08 discusses legal issues in Washington State concerning the subjective nature of DWI arrests. Through my discussions with Steve, I have learned that Washington State has a two prong DWI/DUI statute similar to Texas in that the statutes are both objective and subjective in relation to intoxication. In his blog post, he discusses an officer’s reluctance to send a person back on the road if they are at all “questionable.” I think his discussion of legal issues in Washington State is relevant to my discussion of the community caretaking function of Austin Texas police officers only as to the highly fact-specific and subjective nature of both types of issues.
The above discussion relating to an officer’s community caretaking function (sometimes used as the reasoning for an initial encounter with a future DWI defendant) is brief and highly fact specific. Due to the rapidly changing nature of the law on this issue, one should not rely in any way on the accuracy of the information. If you have any questions relating to the community care taking function of a police officer or have been arrested for DWI, please schedule a consultation.
Austin DWI Lawyer
Attorney At Law
512 E. 11th Street, Ste. 202
Austin, Texas 78701
Phone: (512) 335-5245