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The “Community Caretaking” Exception and Drunk Driving Cases

Normally, a police officer requires “probable cause” to initiate a traffic stop or investigate a person suspected of DWI. But an officer may also engage in what is known as a “community caretaking” function. Basically, if the officer believes someone needs help, the officer can stop and offer assistance. And if the officer then happens to discover evidence of drunk driving while exercising this community caretaking function, the officer can make an arrest.

Appeals Court: Officer Did Not Need Probable Cause to Check on Defendant’s Well-Being

A recent decision from a Texas appeals court, Wilson v. State, provides an example of how the community caretaking exception works in practice. This case began when a police officer observed a vehicle “weaving back and forth” on the road before parking on the side of the street.

The officer said he then decided to initiate a traffic stop, not because he suspected any criminal activity, but because he wanted to make sure the driver was okay. When the officer spoke with the driver (the defendant), however, he observed multiple signs of possible intoxication. Indeed, the defendant admitted he had “consumed beer not long ago.” After the defendant failed a field sobriety test, the officer arrested him for DWI.

At trial, the defendant argued the traffic stop was illegal as the officer lacked probable cause. A jury nevertheless found the defendant guilty. The judge sentenced the defendant to 90 days in jail, but suspended that sentence in favor of one year of probation. The defendant still appealed his conviction, renewing his “lack of probable cause” argument.

But as the Court of Appeals explained, the officer did not need probable cause based on the community caretaking exception. A police officer may rely on this exception if two conditions are met: First, the officer must have been “primarily motivated by a community caretaking purpose”; and second, the officer must have had a “reasonable” belief that someone needed assistance.

Here, the officer observed the defendant weaving through traffic before parking in an unusual location at the side of a busy public street. The officer testified that he had seen drivers exhibit similar behaviors in the past, which indicated potential medical problems. Under these circumstances, the appeals court said the officer had a “reasonable” belief the defendant might have been a driver in need of assistance. It was therefore unnecessary for the officer to also have probable cause of possible criminal activity prior to initiating a stop.

Speak with a Houston Drunk Driving Defense Lawyer Today

If a police officer does initiate a conversation that is ostensible to check on your well-being, remember that you do not have to volunteer any information that might be used against you later. Even when the police act in good faith, they are still the police. So admitting you had a beer or two before you got behind the wheel is never a good idea.

And if you are arrested for DWI and need representation from an experienced criminal defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today to speak with someone right away. Call (281) 280-0100