Supreme Court Rules Certain Police Caretaking Acts Permitted Without Warrant

The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld a White County man’s DUI conviction, ruling that the officer who approached a man’s parked vehicle for a welfare check acted consistently with federal and state constitutional principles and within his community caretaking function.

Kenneth McCormick was arrested in 2012 after a White County Sheriff’s Department officer on routine patrol at 2:45 a.m. observed McCormick’s vehicle parked, with its engine and headlights on, mostly blocking an entrance to a shopping center. The back left wheel and rear portion of the vehicle were partially in the roadway. The officer parked his patrol car in the roadway behind the vehicle and activated its back blue lights for safety to help prevent the vehicles from being rear-ended.

When the officer approached McCormick’s vehicle for a welfare check, he observed McCormick slumped over the wheel. When the officer tapped on the window, McCormick did not respond. The officer then opened the door, “detected a strong odor of alcoholic beverage on [McCormick’s] breath and person,” and noticed an open beer bottle in the center console. The officer was able to wake McCormick after a minute of trying and asked him to exit the vehicle. McCormick complied but was swaying, stumbling, having difficulty standing still, and very unsteady on his feet. After McCormick admitted to having three to four beers and failed three field sobriety tests, the officer arrested him for DUI.

Before trial, McCormick moved to suppress any evidence obtained during the welfare check, arguing that the officer should not have seized him without either a warrant or a basis for believing a warrantless seizure was appropriate. The trial court denied McCormick’s motion. A jury found McCormick guilty, and McCormick appealed, challenging the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling, explaining that the officer acted properly within his community caretaking role in approaching the vehicle and checking on McCormick’s welfare.

The Supreme Court granted permission to appeal to reconsider a prior decision,State v. Moats, which held the community caretaking doctrine is not an exception to the warrant requirement of the federal or state constitutions. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the appeal on February 10, 2016, at the Nashville School of Law.

In the opinion released today, the Supreme Court overruled Moats and held that the community caretaking doctrine is an exception to the federal and state constitutional warrant requirement. To establish that the exception applies, the Supreme Court explained, the State must show that the officer must have known specific facts which, when viewed objectively in the circumstance, supported a conclusion that a community caretaking action was needed. The state must also show that the officer’s behavior and the scope of the intrusion were limited to the extent necessary to the community caretaking need.

In this case, the Supreme Court determined that the community caretaking exception applied to the welfare check of McCormick’s vehicle and therefore affirmed the judgments of the trial court and Court of Criminal Appeals in denying McCormick’s motion to suppress.

Read the unanimous opinion in State of Tennessee v. Kenneth McCormick, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark.