Merit Decision. The Court Approves the Community-Caretaking/Emergency-Aid Exception to the Fourth Amendment. State v. Dunn.

On March 15, 2012 the Supreme Court of Ohio decided State v. Dunn, 2012-Ohio-1008.  In this 6-1 decision written by Justice Stratton, the Court approved a warrantless traffic stop when the police reasonably believe there is an immediate need for their help to protect life or prevent a serious injury. Justice Lanzinger wrote a short but significant  separate concurrence joined by Justice McGee Brown and Chief Justice O’Connor, and Justice Pfeifer wrote a lengthy dissent.

Vandalia police officer Robert Brazel received a dispatcher’s report based on a tip that a man driving a tow truck was possibly suicidal, and had a gun in the truck. Brazel and some other officers located the truck driven by Richard Dunn, and pulled it over, even though Dunn had not violated any traffic laws.  A clearly-distraught Dunn told the officers there was a loaded gun in the glove compartment. The police confiscated the gun and Officer Brazel took Dunn to a hospital.

Sixteen months later the state charged Dunn with the crime of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. Dunn moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the police had no constitutional basis for conducting the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion, finding the stop was a legitimate response to an emergency situation. Dunn was convicted and sentenced to community control.

The Second District Court of Appeals  reversed, in a split decision. The Supreme Court accepted the case on the state’s appeal.

Justice Stratton, who wrote the majority decision, had been the most indignant at the oral argument about the irony of the defendant’s situation,  noting that the only reason Dunn may have been alive to bring a suppression motion was because the police had intervened to save his life, and if they hadn’t, she had commented, they probably would’ve been sued for wrongful death. Echoing those sentiments, she began her analysis in the decision with this paragraph:

{¶ 11} “We begin by noting the irony that Dunn, who was suicidal when he was stopped by the police, now contends that the police should not have stopped his vehicle to render aid. If the police had not stopped Dunn, he may have harmed himself. And if the police had not acted, and Dunn had harmed or killed himself, Dunn or his estate could have filed a civil lawsuit against the police for failure to respond to an emergency. Such is the balancing act of Fourth Amendment law.”

The Court first held that the stop in this case was not a Terry investigative stop, so it was not governed by that body of law.  Rather, it was controlled by a re-named variant of the well-recognized exigent circumstances exception to a warrant requirement—the “community caretaking exception,”  sometimes called the “emergency-aid exception.” Justice Stratton clearly prefers this nomenclature for this exception to the warrant requirement approved by the Ohio high court in this case.  That’s what made it into the case syllabus. It definitely has a kinder, gentler feel to it than exigent circumstances.

 Justice Stratton cited an extensive number of state and federal cases, including  several from the U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing that  a “community-caretaking/emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement is necessary to allow police to respond to emergency situations where life or limb is in jeopardy.”   That exception was clearly applicable in this case, where the police received a dispatch that a man with a gun in his truck was suicidal.  The traffic stop in this case was proper under this Fourth Amendment exception. And any statement that Dunn made to police about the gun being in the glove compartment was unsolicited and strictly voluntary, so no Miranda warnings were necessary.  The Court of Appeals decision was reversed, and Dunn’s conviction was reinstated.

And yet, the majority decision doesn’t make enough of the fact that for all of this feel good nomenclature like community caretaking, and obviously intelligent and praiseworthy police intervention, Dunn was arrested and charged with a crime.  This is the basis for the separate concurrence by Justice Lanzinger, which I quote in its entirety:

 ¶ 28} “What is troublesome here is that the state indicted Dunn for the crime of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle 16 months after the police prevented his suicide. One wonders if it was reasonable for the state to prosecute Dunn under these circumstances after more than a year had passed. Nevertheless, a motion to suppress puts at issue the actions of police rather than prosecutors. Because the officers in this case acted reasonably and responsibly, I agree that there was no Fourth Amendment violation and that the court of appeals’ judgment should be reversed.”

In his solo dissent, Justice Pfeifer sees this case entirely differently, as did the majority of the court of appeals which had reversed Dunn’s conviction. Pfeifer thought the case had “all the earmarks of an investigative stop.”  Did the police have a reasonable basis to make the stop?  When is a telephone tip reliable enough to justify an investigative stop? “Where the stop is based entirely on an informant’s call to a police dispatcher,” wrote Pfeifer, “the reasonableness of the stop must be based upon the reliability of the tip that generated the police dispatch.”

Under existing law in Ohio, a telephone tip by itself can create the reasonable suspicion necessary to support a stop, but the state must prove that the tip has “sufficient indicia of reliability.” Under the Court’s own precedent, the bar for proving reliability is quite low. Neither the informant who made the call nor the dispatcher has to testify. All that is required is the testimony of the arresting officer about the facts that brought about the dispatch.  That’s really not much. But in this case, the state presented absolutely no evidence of the facts known to the dispatcher about the caller. So to Pfeifer, there was simply no way for the trial court to evaluate the reliability of the tip, which formed the entire basis for the stop and subsequent indictment.  Simply put, to him, the state failed in its burden of proof in this case.

Justice Pfeifer also disagreed that this is an exigent circumstances case, by whatever name it is called.  He distinguished each one of the cases relied on by Justice Stratton for creating her preferred-named community-caretaking/emergency aid exception. He pointed out that none of those cases relied solely on a telephone tip, and in each one the police officers relied to some degree on their own personal observations and investigation.

 Case Syllabus

The community-caretaking/emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement allows police officers to stop a person to render aid if they reasonably believe that there is an immediate need for their assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury.

Concluding Observations

I never thought the Court would write a rule that the police could not make a warrantless stop for an emergency when they thought someone’s life was in danger.  The exception recognized here seems a reasonable one.  What seems unreasonable in this case was arresting Dunn, and sixteen months after the traffic stop, to boot. What purpose was served there? I’m glad that a majority of the Justices—all those who joined Justice Lanzinger’s concurrence, plus Justice Pfeifer—called the prosecution on this.










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