Question: Can a peace officer perform a search without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing?
Quick answer: Yes, but only under the community-caretaking/emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement.
Facts: A police officer received a dispatch call that a man driving a tow truck had planned to kill himself with a gun once he reached a specific address. The officer quickly located the tow truck and followed it until another officer arrived to help him. They pulled the truck over. The driver, Richard Dunn, got out of the truck with his hands up, holding a cell phone. The officers handcuffed Dunn and patted him down for safety, only finding a small pocket knife.
One officer walked Dunn over to the police cruiser when Dunn told him, “It’s in the glove box.” He asked Dunn if he was talking about a gun, and Dunn said yes. The other officer looked in the tow truck’s glove compartment and found the loaded gun. They talked to Dunn about committing suicide and then drove him to the hospital to be admitted. Dunn was later charged with the improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. He filed a motion to suppress all the evidence based on Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations.
Why the case is important: The Ohio Supreme Court held that stopping Dunn based on the police dispatch call did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The court held that police action is reasonable so long as the circumstances justify the action. Here, even though Dunn had not committed any traffic violation, officers had reason to believe he was armed and suicidal. The stop and the recovery of the gun were reasonable under the community-caretaking/emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. This warrant exception allows peace officers to stop a person in order to give aid if the officers reasonably believe there is an immediate need for their assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury. Also, the court found that the officers did not commit a Fifth Amendment Miranda violation because Dunn was not being interrogated. He volunteered his statement about the gun.
Keep in mind: The community-caretaker/emergency-aid exception can be tricky. Here, the officers clearly stopped Dunn for a community-caretaker function because they were concerned about a possible suicide. They had no ulterior motive that could be linked to a criminal prosecution. If you make a stop or a search under this exception, you will need to be able to clearly state whyyou thought a person needed your care or emergency aid.
to read the entire opinion.