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SPECIFIC FACTS WHY A MOTORIST IS IN NEED OF ASSISTANCE REQUIRED BEFORE “CARE-TAKING” EXCEPTION APPLIES TO WARRANTLESS DETENTION

The PA Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Livingstone, No. 11 WAP 2016 (November 28, 2017), holding that a Trooper subjected Livingstone to an illegal investigatory detention when, with lights activated, he pulled beside her vehicle which was stopped on the roadside. Furthermore, the public servant “exception” to the warrant requirement under the community care-taking doctrine did not apply where the Trooper could not articulate any specific and objective facts that would reasonably suggest why he believed Livingstone needed assistance. 

Livingstone was arrested and charged with DUI after a Trooper observed her vehicle pulled over onto the right shoulder of the road with the engine running. Her hazard lights were not activated. The Trooper activated his emergency lights and, with his passenger window down, pulled alongside the stopped vehicle. The Trooper asked of she was okay and asked where she was heading. She replied she was okay and was heading to New York. The Trooper then pulled his vehicle in front of hers, exited his vehicle and walked toward her vehicle. About that same time, another Trooper pulled his own vehicle behind hers. The first Trooper then asked Livingstone for her license and asked if she had been drinking. She replied “no” but, appeared confused; had “glossy” eyes; and, seemed to be “an emotional wreck.” The Trooper told her he was going to give her a PBT (Portable Breath Test) and that she could be on her way if she passed. A third Trooper then arrived because the first two did not have a PBT available.

Livingstone ‘s PBT showed alcohol in her system and she was arrested. At the police station, her BAC was determined to be .205%. She was subsequently charged with DUI.

Livingstone filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence, arguing that once the Trooper activated his emergency lights and pulled alongside her vehicle, she was subjected to an investigative detention unsupported by reasonable suspicion. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the Trooper, after observing Livingstone’s vehicle on the side of the interstate, had a duty to determine whether she was in need of assistance, and his act of approaching her vehicle with his overhead emergency lights was a mere encounter.

Livingstone appealed to the Superior Court which affirmed her judgment of sentence in a unanimous, unpublished memorandum opinion. Specifically, the Superior Court rejected her claim that the activation of emergency lights on a police cruiser immediately renders an interaction between an officer and a citizen an investigative detention, noting that it had rejected that same argument in previous cases.

Livingstone filed a petition for allowance of appeal with the Supreme Court, which was granted, to consider the following issue: “Where a Police Officer approaches a voluntarily stopped motorist with the police vehicle’s emergency lights activated, would a reasonable motorist feel that she was not free to leave prior to the approaching officer stopping to interact with her, or, simply passing her by?” The parties were specifically directed to address the potential application of a community care-taking exception that, in certain cases, permits a warrantless seizure.

INVESTIGATIVE DETENTION or MERE ENCOUNTER?

Livingstone argued that, at the moment the Trooper pulled alongside her stopped vehicle with his emergency lights activated, she was subjected to an investigative detention that was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause, thus violating her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although the Commonwealth asserted that the seizure was justified under the “community care-taking doctrine,” the Supreme Court was “constrained” to agree with Livingstone that, when the Trooper pulled alongside her vehicle with his emergency lights activated, she was seized and subject to an investigative detention.

In so-concluding, the Supreme Court considered whether a reasonable person in Livingstone’s shoes would have believed she was free to leave when the Trooper pulled his patrol car, with its emergency lights activated, alongside her vehicle.

The Court acknowledged that a reasonable person may recognize that a police officer might activate his vehicle’s emergency lights for safety purposes, as opposed to a command to stop. However, the Supreme Court, after a thorough analysis that included the PA Driver’s Manual, Vehicle Code and decisions from other jurisdictions, concluded that, “upon consideration of the realities of everyday life, particularly the relationship between ordinary citizens and law enforcement, we simply cannot pretend that a reasonable person, innocent of any crime, would not interpret the activation of emergency lights on a police vehicle as a signal that he or she is not free to leave.”

Accordingly, having concluded that the seizure was not supported by any degree of suspicion of criminal activity, the Court then set out to determine whether it was otherwise justified under the Fourth Amendment.

THE COMMUNITY CARE-TAKING [“EXCEPTION”] DOCTRINE

The Commonwealth argued that, even if Livingstone was subjected to a seizure, that seizure was reasonable under the community care-taking “exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Livingstone, on the other hand, argued that application of that doctrine was not supported under the facts of her case.

The community care-taking doctrine has been characterized as encompassing three specific exceptions: the emergency aid exception; the automobile impoundment/inventory exception; and, the public servant exception, also sometimes referred to as the public safety exception. Each of the exceptions contemplates that the police officer’s actions be motivated by a desire to render aid or assistance, rather than the investigation of criminal activity.

The Supreme Court noted that it had not previously addressed the public servant or the emergency aid exceptions under the community care-taking doctrine. After analyzing various opinions from other jurisdictions, the Court agreed that the role of police is not limited to the detection, investigation, and prevention of criminal activity. Rather, it noted that police officers engage in a myriad of activities that ensure the safety and welfare of our Commonwealth’s citizens. That said, the Court recognized that even the community care-taking activity is limited by Fourth Amendment protections. Accordingly, the public servant exception may be employed but, only if it is done so consistent with those protections.

The Supreme Court again analyzed opinions from various jurisdictions to determine what test should be used to determine whether the public servant exception justifies a warrantless search or seizure.

Livingstone argued that PA should adopt the “reasonableness test” which requires, inter alia, that a police officer point to specific and articulable facts which led him or her to believe that assistance was necessary and, an objective assessment by the court as to whether the officer’s belief was reasonable. After careful consideration, the Supreme Court then concluded that the reasonableness test best accommodated the interests underlying the public servant exception while simultaneously protecting an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

TEST TO DETERMINE IF THE COMMUNITY CARE-TAKING DOCTRINE APPLIES

Based on the above reasoning, the Court summarized that, in order for a seizure to be justified under the public servant exception to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine: (1) an officer must point to specific, objective, and articulable facts which would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that assistance was needed; (2) the police action must be independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence; and, (3) based on a consideration of the surrounding circumstances, the action taken by police must be tailored to rendering assistance or mitigating the peril.

Applying the above test to Livingstone’s case, the Court concluded that, although there was no reason to doubt that the Trooper pulled alongside simply to check to see whether she needed assistance, he was unable to articulate any specific and objective facts that would reasonably suggest why she needed assistance. Thus, his seizure of Livingstone was not justified under the public servant exception, and, the evidence obtained as a result of his investigative detention should have been suppressed.

CASE LINK: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/Majority%20Opinion%20%20ReversedVacatedRemanded%20%2010333104129113102.pdf?cb=1

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