Oral Argument Preview: If the Police Believe an Occupant of a Car Needs Emergency Assistance Based on a Tip to the Dispatcher, is a Warrantless Stop Permissible? State v. Dunn.

Update: The merit decision in this case was handed down March  15, 2012. Read the analysis of the decision here.

 On October 19, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral arguments in the case of State v. Dunn, 2011-0213.The issue in this case is whether a traffic stop made under the belief that an occupant needs emergency assistance violates the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In 2008, police in Vandalia received a dispatcher’s report, based on a 911 call of a suicidal man driving a tow truck with a gun in his possession. The call was not anonymous; the caller gave the dispatcher the caller’s name. Police located the vehicle shortly thereafter and pulled over Richard Dunn. Police handcuffed Dunn, and Dunn indicated that there was a gun in the glove compartment. Officers confiscated the gun and took Dunn to a hospital. Dunn pleaded no contest to a charge of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. During the proceedings, Dunn moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the police had no constitutional basis for conducting the traffic stop. The motion was denied, and the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas sentenced him to community control.

The Second District Court of Appeals  reversed, in a split decision. The majority held that the evidence should have been suppressed. It found that the state failed to prove the factual basis for the police dispatch that led to the arrest, as neither the 911 caller nor the police observed any criminal activity that would have justified a traffic stop and the dispatcher did not testify at the suppression hearing. The court explained that under Maumee v. Weisner (1999), 87 Ohio St.3d 295, “where an officer making an investigative stop relies solely on a dispatch, the state must demonstrate at a suppression hearing that the facts precipitating the dispatch justified a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Because the arresting officer testified at the hearing that he did not know who the informant was and no one else explained the facts leading to the dispatch and the arrest, the state did not meet its burden at the suppression hearing.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio. The state adopts the position of the dissenting court of appeals judge, which is that the court of appeals majority imposed the wrong test in this matter. It superimposed the test for criminal investigatory stops onto emergency situations. The state posits that the Fourth Amendment does not bar police officers from making traffic stops in emergency situations when they reasonably believe that a person is in need of immediate aid. Such was the case here, and the police were entitled to a brief detention which the state refers to as a “mental health seizure.”

The state argues that the court of appeals should have asked whether the stop was objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, not whether the state proved that the dispatcher’s belief in the truth and reliability of the caller’s report was reasonable. It also points out that the officers did not search the truck—Dunn volunteered the information about the gun on his own.

In response, Dunn concedes that police officers have a duty to protect the public, and that police may make a warrantless traffic stop in response to an emergency. Dunn argues that when a stop is based solely on a dispatch, the state has the burden of establishing that the facts precipitating the dispatch, and to show that there were enough facts to make the dispatch reasonable based on the weight and reliability of the tip. Dunn argues that the emergency-aid-as-an exigent-circumstances exception does not apply here. The police saw nothing unusual or irregular. He was not driving erratically, and there were no equipment problems with his vehicle that would have justified his being pulled over. Finally, Dunn notes he was completely cooperative with police.

The Attorney General’s Office filed an amicus brief in support of the state of Ohio. The Office of the Ohio Public Defender filed an amicus brief in support of Richard Dunn.

Student Contributor: Greg Kendall

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