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The Limits of the ‘Community Caretaking’ Function Exception in Warrantless Search Cases in Washington

On Behalf of | Nov 4, 2016 | Assault

There are a few, but only a limited few, reasons that a law enforcement officer can search your person or possessions without a warrant. If the officer conducts a warrantless search and obtains evidence against you, and you challenge the admission of this evidence at trial, the law requires the state to prove that the warrantless search fit within one of the valid exceptions to the prohibition against warrantless searches. In one recent vehicular assault case, a deputy conducted a warrantless search of a driver’s purse in order to expedite the towing of her car. The trial court said that this was part of the the officer’s “community caretaking” function, but the Washington Court of Appeals later reversed that ruling and awarded the driver a new trial. Without proof that the search was necessary for some health-and-safety-related reason (which the state did not have in this case), the search was not within any exception and therefore was illegal.

The case began with a single-vehicle accident. Shaun Johnson had driven her car into a ditch. A deputy at the scene searched the woman’s purse for her driver’s license and proof of insurance. While doing so, he found what he suspected to be methamphetamine. He asked the driver about her drug use, claiming that medical providers would need this knowledge to treat her. She admitted having used meth two days earlier, but she did not appear under the influence of drugs when the deputy spoke to her. Some time later, a tow truck driver discovered a 16-year-old boy whom Johnson had hit. The boy had suffered serious injuries that later required the amputation of one leg.

From all this, the state charged Johnson with possession of methamphetamine and vehicular assault. At her trial, Johnson asked the judge to throw out the evidence of the baggies of meth in her purse, arguing that the deputy lacked a valid basis for engaging in the search, which made the meth illegally obtained evidence. The trial court rejected this request, and Johnson was ultimately convicted on both charges.

Later, the driver appealed her conviction, again arguing that the police obtained the meth evidence through an illegal search. The state had argued that the deputy was permitted to make the search that he completed, even without a warrant, since the law allows law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless searches when they are necessary to “render aid or assistance or when making routine checks on health and safety.”

The court concluded that the deputy in this case was not rendering aid or assistance or doing a health-and-safety check. The evidence in the case indicated that the deputy was filling out the accident report and needed some information from Johnson’s license to complete the task. He was in the process of going through the driver’s purse to obtain the license when he found the baggies of meth. The trial court concluded that the completion of an accident report was part of an officer’s “community caretaking” function, but the appeals court stated that, unless there was a legitimate health and safety need, this was not within the parameters of his community caretaking function.

In this case, the deputy testified that his only concern was expediting the paperwork the tow truck driver needed so that the tow truck driver could tow away Johnson’s car as quickly as possible. Since this was not a valid health and safety concern under the law, the deputy did not have a permissible basis to search Johnson’s purse without a warrant. The trial court should have excluded the drug evidence against Johnson, and its failure to do so meant that she was entitled to a new trial.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, you need to make sure that the evidence at trial is limited to things the police obtained legally. This often involves engaging in proper requests for the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence. Experienced criminal counsel can help you identify the evidence the police obtained illegally and the correct way to go about challenging the admission of this proof. The skilled Tacoma drug crime attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have many years of experience defending the accused both before and during trial to ensure that you or your loved one gets a strong defense. Call us today at 253-363-8662 to schedule your initial consultation. The first consultation is free.