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community caretaker vehicle stop allows a peace officer to stop a vehicle based upon his concern for the driver’s safety.  Usually, a peace officer is only justified in stopping vehicles when: (1) The peace officer observes the driver of the vehicle commit a traffic violation; (2) the peace officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that the driver is committing a traffic offense, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or driving without a license; and (3) the peace officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that the driver is engaged in more serious criminal activity, such as transporting drugs.

The Utah and United States Constitutions prohibit peace officers from randomly or arbitrarily stopping vehicles.[1]  However, Utah Courts allow vehicle stops if the peace officer is genuinely engaged in a community caretaking function.

In order for the community caretaker vehicle stop to be lawful, a Utah Court must find that the peace officer complied with a three-tiered test.  First, the court must determine if a seizure occurred under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. (Stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.[2]) Second, the court must determine whether the seizure was in pursuit of a bona fide community caretaker function.  Third, the court must ascertain whether there was a reasonable belief that the circumstances posed an imminent danger to life or limb.

The lawfulness of the community caretaker vehicle stop was first addressed by the Utah Court of Appeals in Provo City v. Warden, 844 P.2d 360 (Utah App. 1992).

In Warden, two men approached the peace officer’s vehicle and informed him that the defendant had just asked them where he could buy some cocaine so that he could drive himself into a wall.  The men described the vehicle which the defendant was driving, and supplied the peace officer with the license plate number.  The peace officer spotted the defendant’s vehicle and subsequently stopped him.

After stopping the vehicle, the peace officer approached defendant and asked him for his driver’s license and registration.  After observing the defendant, the peace officer smelled alcohol on defendant’s breath and determined that he was unsteady on his feet.  Based on these observations, the peace officer administered field sobriety tests.  The peace officer determined that defendant had failed the field sobriety tests and arrested him for driving under the influence.

In Warden, the central issue before the Utah Court of Appeals was: Are peace officers authorized to make community caretaker vehicle stops? And, under what circumstance will they be lawful?

The court applied the aforementioned three-pronged test to determine if the peace officer had conducted a lawful community caretaker vehicle stop.  The court found that the first prong was satisfied when the State of Utah conceded that the defendant was seized under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court found that the second prong was satisfied in that a reasonable peace officer would have stopped defendant to prevent a suicide attempt and this was consistent with a peace officer’s community caretaker function. Most notably, the peace officer was not acting within his duties of detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the commission of crimes.  The third prong was satisfied because the unidentified men who informed the peace officer that defendant was threatening to harm himself created a reasonable basis upon which the peace officer could conclude that defendant was in imminent danger.  Further, because it was late at night and the information given the officer suggested an immediate threat to defendant’s physical safety or life, it was not reasonable to pursue an alternative means or to take time to try to verify the information other than by immediately locating defendant.

Wherefore, the Utah Court of Appeals held that the stop of defendant’s vehicle was permissible under Utah’s community caretaker test.

[1] Utah Const. Art. 1 § 13 U.S. Const. amend. IV.
[2] Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979) and State v. Schlosser, 774 P.2d 1132 (Utah 1989)