The Illinois Supreme Court invoked a seldom-used exception to the Fourth Amendment to reach its recent decision in People v. McDonough, No. 109489, slip op. (Ill. November 18, 2010). In McDonough, a state trooper encountered a car parked on the shoulder of a busy highway during a routine evening patrol. Id. at 2. The officer, deciding to inquire whether the car’s occupants needed assistance, pulled behind the stopped car and activated his emergency lights “for his safety.” Id. The officer approached the car, and the driver rolled down the window to answer the officer’s questions. Id. at 2-3. The trooper detected alcohol on the driver’s breath and asked the defendant to submit to a field sobriety test, which he failed, and a Breathalyzer test, which he declined. The driver was arrested for and charged with DUI. Id. at 3. The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence and quash arrest, which the trial court granted. Id. The appellate court reversed the trial court on appeal. See McDonough, No. 109489, slip. op. at 3. At issue was whether the defendant was “seized” in violation of the Fourth Amendment when the officer pulled behind his vehicle and activated his emergency lights. Id. at 4.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const., amend. IV. “Generally, stopping a vehicle and detaining its occupants constitute a “seizure” within the meaning of the fourth amendment, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose.” McDonough, No. 109489, slip. op. at 5 (internal citations omitted). Therefore, the vehicle stop must be reasonable. Id. at 6 (citing Whren, 518 U.S. 806, 810 (1996). Normally, an officer needs probable cause that a traffic violation has occurred in order for the stop to be reasonable. Id. (citing Whren, et al). But the U.S. Supreme Court has carved out several exceptions to the probable cause requirement. Id. (internal citations omitted). One of these exceptions is the “community caretaking exception,” which the U.S. Supreme Court created in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). Community caretaking “refers to a capacity in which the police act when they are performing some task unrelated to the investigation of a crime, such as helping children find their parents, mediating noise disputes, responding to calls about missing persons or sick neighbors, or helping inebriates find their way home.” Id. at 7. In order for the community caretaking exception to apply, 1) officers “must be performing some function other than the investigation of a crime” and 2) the search and seizure” must be reasonable because it was undertaken to protect the safety of the general public.” Id. at 10 (internal citations omitted). If these elements are met, such searches and seizures made in the officer’s community caretaking capacity are deemed reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. See McDonough, No. 109489, slip. op. at 10.
The Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court that the defendant was “seized” when the officer pulled behind defendant’s car and activated his emergency lights. Id. Because this constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, the question that the Court had to decide was whether such a seizure was performed in the officer’s community caretaking capacity. The Supreme Court held that the seizure fell within the community caretaking exception because 1) the officer was not performing an investigative function because he approached the defendant’s car to render aid to a driver in distress and 2) that it was reasonable to render such aid when a motorist was stranded on the side of a remote stretch of highway after dark. Id. at 11. Therefore, the seizure of the defendant was a valid Fourth Amendment seizure, and therefore the subsequent discovery of alcohol on defendant’s breath could not be barred by the exclusionary rule. Id. at 12.
Though the community caretaker exception is used infrequently in court, it probably occurs just as often as the other Fourth Amendment exceptions (i.e., exigent circumstances) because police officers perform such functions as checking on stranded motorists more often than chasing individuals in hot pursuit. Therefore, drivers who have been drinking should be mindful that the Fourth Amendment probable cause requirement does not apply when those drivers are doing something that, while perhaps not illegal, nonetheless presents a danger to themselves or the community (such as parking on the side of a busy highway at night) that would warrant an officer to check on the driver or the other occupants of his vehicle.