Supreme Court Upholds Tennessee’s Application of the Community Caretaking Doctrine

March 22, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed a ruling by the Court of Criminal Appeals, which set aside the conviction of James David Moats for driving under the influence after a police officer discovered him parked in a grocery store parking lot.

After observing that the arresting officer admitted activating the blue lights on her patrol car without either cause to believe a crime had been committed or reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity, the Supreme Court concluded that the officer was not acting in a “community caretaking role” and, in consequence, practically all of the incriminating evidence should not have been admitted at the trial.

At approximately 2:00 a.m. on December 7, 2008, an Etowah police officer on routine patrol observed Moats sitting in the driver’s seat of his pick-up truck, which was parked in a grocery store parking lot in an area of suspected drug activity. The officer continued on her route, but when she returned five minutes later to find the truck parked in the same position, she stopped her patrol car directly behind the truck, activated her blue lights, and called in the license plate number.

When the officer approached the driver’s side window, she saw an open beer can in a cup holder on the dash of the truck and keys in the ignition. After removing Moats from his truck and administering field sobriety tests, the officer took him into custody.

At trial, the officer candidly acknowledged that, although she had not seen Moats engage in any illegal activity, he was not “free to leave” once she activated the blue lights. The trial court determined that the officer was permitted to approach the parked truck and ask for the driver’s identification and proof of vehicle registration because she was acting under the community caretaking doctrine, which, under prior case law in this state, has been defined as a consensual police-citizen encounter that is unrelated to the investigation or detection of criminal activity.

The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with the trial court, holding that the encounter was not voluntary and, therefore, the officer was acting in an impermissible investigative capacity rather than as a community caretaker.

The Supreme Court applied the community caretaking doctrine as defined in this state and affirmed the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals, holding that although the activation of an officer’s blue lights does not always mean there has been a “seizure” and thereby implicate constitutional protections, the totality of the circumstances indicated that the officer used her blue lights as a show of authority without reasonable suspicion or probable cause as traditionally defined by the United States Supreme Court.

Because the officer’s actions were not “totally divorced” from the investigation or the detection of criminal activity, the Court further ruled that the activation of her blue lights did not qualify as an exercise of the community caretaking role. The Court recognized that, while it is important for police officers to act in their community caretaking role of protecting and assisting the public, they must do so in a consensual manner without directing a show of authority, such as the activation of blue lights, at a particular person.

Justice Cornelia A. Clark and Justice William C. Koch, Jr. disagreed with the majority decision and would have reinstated the trial court’s judgment upholding the conviction. The dissenting justices would have adopted a community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant and probable cause requirements and upheld the seizure as valid under that exception.

Specifically, the dissenting justices would have held that the Etowah police officer acted reasonably in her community caretaking role by approaching Moats’ vehicle to check on his welfare after his vehicle remained parked for several minutes in a deserted commercial parking lot at 2:00 a.m. The dissenting justices emphasized that “the public has a strong interest in encouraging the police to act as community caretakers.” “Because searches or seizures premised on legitimate caretaking concerns are not unreasonable,” the dissenting justices explained, “validating them does not erode any of the constitutional protections or diminish any of the constitutional rights we all hold so dear.”

Visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov to read the State of Tennessee v. James David Moats opinion authored by Chief Justice Gary R. Wade, and the dissent of Justice Cornelia A. Clark and Justice William C. Koch, Jr.