Stopped Too Long at a Stop Sign? You Might Just Get Pulled Over.

Written by Gregory Monte.

Have you ever heard of the community caretaking doctrine?

It is an exception to the 4th Amendment protection on unlawful searches and seizures.  From what I can tell, it was first identified in the 1973 US Supreme Court Case Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 US 433:

“Local police officers, unlike federal officers, frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”

In other words, if a police officer thinks something is “wrong,” he can pull over a driver even if no motor vehicle statute has been violated.

Here is a concrete example from a 1989 Washington State case Washington v. DeArman, 54 Wash.App. 621, 774 P.2d 1247, 1249-50.  In this instance, a car remained motionless at a stop sign for close to a full minute.  A nearby police officer, concerned about the occupant of the vehicle, approached and activated his lights:

“At about 2 a.m. on May 20, 1987, at the intersection of Admiralty Way and Gibson Road in South Snohomish County, Deputy Gerald Ross observed an automobile motionless at a stop sign for 45 to 60 seconds. The automobile’s brake lights were on, but Ross could not tell if the headlights were on or if the engine was running. There was no other traffic on the roadway, and Ross thought the automobile might be disabled.  Ross approached the automobile and activated his emergency lights. The automobile then moved through the intersection and pulled over to the side of the road about 50 feet past the intersection.”

Fortunately for DeArman, the court ruled that this was an unjustified stop.  But I can’t get over the fact that police are permitted this exception to one of our most fundamental rights.  The way I see it, this is just another reason why the US Constitution is nothing more than a faded and tattered document.

I actually wrote a song about this a couple of years ago, Founder’s Lament, to highlight the current state of the US Constitution. I believe that our founders would lament how irrelevant it has become over the years. Its a progressive rock song in two parts:

  • Post Mortem Revolution (Founder’s Lament Pt. 1)
  • Faded and Tattered (Founders’s Lament Pt. 2)


One thought on “Stopped Too Long at a Stop Sign? You Might Just Get Pulled Over.

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