The Police as “Community Caretakers”

“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Ronald Reagan

Written by Gregory Monte.

I first encountered the idea of a community caretaker when reading about an individual who was pulled over by the police for stopping too long at a stop sign.  I found this seemingly obvious violation of the 4th Amendment to be so disturbing that I actually wrote a post about it: Stopped Too Long at a Stop Sign? You Might Just Get Pulled Over.

According to this doctrine, if a cop thinks something might be wrong with you or your car, he is legally allowed to stop you to try to “help” out.  In other words, he is fulfilling a duty to care for a member of his community.

Fortunately, there are limits to this violation of the 4th Amendment.  The examples I provide below are all from New Jersey, but I would imagine that other states have similar restrictions on this caretaker function.

Car Stopped at Light for 5 Seconds

As related in State v. Cryan, 727 A. 2d 93 – NJ: Appellate Div. 1999:

“At the intersection with James Street, the officer pulled up behind defendant’s vehicle Using his mobile data terminal, the officer determined that there was nothing out of the ordinary with respect to the vehicle.  When the light turned green, the defendant’s vehicle remained stationary for approximately five seconds and then ‘proceeded to make the left-hand turn very slowly.’ The officer followed for about 100 feet, then activated his emergency lights and stopped defendant in a parking lot near the corner. There were no other vehicles on the road at this early-morning hour.”

The decision in this case does acknowledge the legitimacy of the community caretaking function, but concludes that hesitating 5 seconds at a signal light does not constitute an example of this:

“Inferences of that sort cannot be reasonably drawn from a driver’s failure to proceed for five seconds after a red light has turned green when the only other vehicle in the area is a marked police car stopped immediately to the driver’s rear. Therefore, a stop in these circumstances is not objectively reasonable; it is unconstitutional

Car Parked Crookedly by the Curb

As related in State v. Hill, 557 A. 2d 322 – NJ: Supreme Court 1989, a police officer opened the door of a car that was not parked completely parallel to the road because he was:

“Apprehensive that the vehicle had been stolen or that the operator had met with foul play …”

He retrieved a handbag that was in the vehicle in order to check for the owner’s identification and instead found illegal drugs.

The court ruled that the officer’s actions had nothing to do with “caretaking” and so allowed the suppression of the evidence found in the car:

“In short, there was no ’caretaking’ required. This parking violation obviously did not jeopardize the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic else why did the police leave the car for almost five hours in exactly the same position in which they found it, without placing cones or flares or attempting to move it …”

Vehicle Reported as Possibly Disabled

As related in State v. Montgomery, NJ: Appellate Div. 2009, a concerned motorist reported to the police a potentially disabled van along the side of the road in Bergen County, NJ.  When the police officer arrived on the scene, however, the vehicle was clearly not disabled at all:

The hood had been lowered, the engine engaged, and the van was pulling away from the curb and proceeded down the street. The van did not sputter, stutter, or emit any fumes or smoke.”

Despite this fact, the officer decided to pull the van over anyway because:

“… it is not uncommon for a vehicle to break down again after it has malfunctioned…”

Very kind of this officer, no doubt, but the court ruled that he could not invoke the community caretaker rule in this instance because …

“… when the officer encountered the van, the reported facts that may have supported a response to provide assistance had vanished.”

Government Agents as “Caretakers”

Maybe it is my libertarian bias, but I bristle at the idea of the government being my caretaker in any sense of the term at all.  In fact, as I read through these cases, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous saying which I quoted as a lead-in to this blog post. 

The cases also brought back to mind my reaction when I got a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation after my son got a stop sign ticket last year.  He allegedly “rolled through” an intersection where there were no other vehicles around for several hundred feet.  The state was so concerned about my son’s driving habits that it felt required to charge him $150 and 3 points on his license.  I called bullshit on this then and I repeat it now.

Really? The State is Concerned About My Son’s Driving?


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