[W]hen the officers opened the vehicle for those purposes, they were acting under the Community Caretaking/emergency- aid exception to the warrant requirement. While carrying out that function, Officer Webster saw the methamphetamine inside Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle in plain view.
State v. McCarthy
2022 – Ohio – 4738
Second District Appellate Court
Montgomery County, Ohio
December 29, 2022
On Friday December 17, 2021 at approximately 2:19 a.m., Officer Kenneth Webster of the Dayton Police Department was in a marked cruiser wearing the uniform of the day; he was traveling alone. He had been with the Dayton Police Department for approximately three years. He was in the area of Huffman Avenue and South Wright Avenue on patrol. He noticed a white van in the parking lot of what he described as the Buddhist temple. He noticed that the vehicle was running, the lights were on, and he thought that was suspicious. Particularly, he had seen that vehicle in the parking lot about 30 minutes before when he had been on patrol in the same area; he had seen it, and the vehicle was still there a half an hour later at approximately 2:19 a.m., and he indicated the engine on the vehicle was quite loud. Because of that time of day, 2:19 a.m., it was the only vehicle in a lot where there was no activity. No services were taking place at the temple, nothing else was going on, and so Officer Webster made the decision to conduct a welfare check to see what was going on with that vehicle.
Dayton Police Officer Ken Webster observed a white van parked in this parking lot at 1368 Huffman Avenue in Dayton at 2:19 a.m. His actions that followed would lead to a methamphetamine arrest, conviction and appeal.
Officer Webster pulled into the lot. The officer can be seen actually on the body camera. He pulled into a parking space, not necessarily opposite the van but he is clearly not blocking in the van, and there is sufficient room for the driver, later identified as Mr. William J. McCarthy, to drive away, as the whole driving area can be seen on the body camera. Of course, driving aways was not possible as Mr. McCarthy was unconscious.
Officer Webster did not activate his overhead lights. He knows the area to be a high drug activity area. He was concerned about a potential for an overdose, as he has had similar encounters of a similar nature with vehicles in parking lots, sitting in intersections, and sitting on the roadway. He waited for another officer to arrive; actually two other officers arrived. That was Officer Jacob Savage and his partner, Officer Ashley Fry. The concern was, based upon their experience, they saw a male slumped over in the driver seat. Officer Webster went to the passenger door. You can see—once the door is open, you can clearly see what ended up being Mr. McCarthy slumped over with his head down between the steering wheel and the driver side door.
It appeared to Officer Webster that Mr. McCarthy did not appear to be conscious. Mr. McCarthy was wearing baggy clothing and so Officer Webster could not tell if Mr. McCarthy was breathing. There was no motion. The windows were up. Again, Officer Webster is on the passenger side. Officer Savage and Officer Fry were on the driver’s side. Their concern was that the vehicle could be in drive, and particularly that the vehicle could enter the roadway, and so they made the decision to open the passenger’s door [in an] attempt to turn the vehicle off so that Mr. McCarthy’s foot wouldn’t go off the brake. The door was unlocked. As soon as they opened the door, Officer Webster observed a white baggie with a crystalline substance in it that he immediately recognized as being what he believed to be meth. Officer Webster is specially trained in drug detection. He’s had numerous encounters with crystal meth, and he knows what it looks like, and he indicated that he comes into contact with it every week or two.
Officer Webster did not touch the drugs immediately. The officers checked to make sure the vehicle was in park. Officer Webster attempted to remove the keys to make certain that the car was not in gear and didn’t go out into the roadway, but the ignition was apparently malfunctioning. You could also see as Officer Webster is opening the passenger-side door, the other officers were on the other side opening the driver-side door. Mr. McCarthy was very slow to react, and the officers attempted to check on him. So they removed him from the vehicle and then they patted him down, and there was another baggie of drugs in his pocket. Plea Hearing Tr. (Mar. 23, 2022), p. 39-42.
Based on the foregoing findings of fact, the trial court determined that the officers were engaged in a community caretaking function when they approached and opened Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle to not only rouse Mr. McCarthy but to render his vehicle safe so that it would not go out of the parking lot and hurt anyone. The trial court therefore concluded that, under the community caretaking/emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement, the officers’ conduct of approaching and opening Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle without a warrant did not violate Mr. McCarthy’s Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court also determined that Mr. McCarthy had not been unlawfully seized by the officers. Specifically, the trial court found that the officers’ cruisers were not blocking Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle so as to prevent him from leaving the area and that a reasonable person would not have believed that he or she was being detained by the officers. Accordingly, the trial court overruled Mr. McCarthy’s motion to suppress in its entirety.
After the trial court overruled the motion to suppress, on March 23, 2022, Mr. McCarthy pled no contest to a reduced charge of aggravated possession of drugs as a fifth-degree felony. The trial court accepted Mr. McCarthy’s no contest plea, found him guilty of aggravated possession of drugs, and sentenced him to community control sanctions. Mr. McCarthy now appeals from his conviction, raising a single assignment of error for review.
Community Caretaking Doctrine
Mr. McCarthy is challenging the trial court’s application of the community caretaking/emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Specifically, Mr. McCarthy argues that the facts of this case do not support finding that the officers had an objectively reasonable belief that immediate aid was required so as to permit the officers to approach and open his vehicle without a warrant.
Under the community-caretaking/emergency-aid exception, a law enforcement officer with objectively reasonable grounds to believe that there is an immediate need for his or her assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury may conduct a community caretaking/emergency-aid stop. State v. Dunn, 2012-Ohio-1008, “Community caretaking functions are ‘divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.’ ” State v. Warnick, 2020- Ohio-4240, quoting Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973). “Accordingly …. police officers are not required to possess reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity when exercising community caretaking functions/emergency aid.”
In this case, because Officer Webster approached Mr. McCarthy’s parked vehicle at a public place to see if Mr. McCarthy needed assistance, the approach was a consensual encounter that does not implicate Fourth Amendment protections. Therefore, contrary to Mr. McCarthy’s claim otherwise, it was lawful for Officer Webster to approach Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle.
We also find that it was lawful for Officer Webster and the other responding officers to open Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle without a warrant after seeing that Mr. McCarthy was unconscious and slumped over between the steering wheel and the driver-side door. “When an officer finds an unconscious, disoriented or injured person in a vehicle, it is reasonable for the officer to enter the vehicle to give aid and to determine the cause of the condition.” State v. Croston, 4th Dist. Athens No. 01CA22, 2001 WL 1346130, *3 (Oct. 30, 2001).
In this case, the officers opened the doors to Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle not only to see if Mr. McCarthy needed medical assistance for an overdose, but also to confirm that the vehicle was in park before rousing Mr. McCarthy so as to ensure that the vehicle did not go out of the parking lot and injure anyone. In other words, when the officers opened the vehicle for those purposes, they were acting under the community caretaking/emergency- aid exception to the warrant requirement. While carrying out that function, Officer Webster saw the methamphetamine inside Mr. McCarthy’s vehicle in plain view. Because Officer Webster found the drugs while engaging in a community caretaking/emergency- aid function, the warrantless entry into the vehicle did not require suppression of the drug evidence.
Mr. McCarthy also claims that the drug evidence should have been suppressed because it was discovered as the result of the police officers’ unlawfully seizing him during their initial approach of his vehicle.
Mr. McCarthy contends that his encounter with the police officers in this case constituted an unlawful, warrantless seizure based on how many officers were present at the scene and based on how the officers parked their cruisers behind his vehicle, approached his vehicle from both sides, and illuminated his driver-side mirror with a spotlight. In support of his argument, Mr. McCarthy points out that this court recently held in Jones that police officers demonstrated a show of authority that established a seizure when they positioned their cruiser in a way that made it difficult, though not impossible, for an individual to terminate the encounter and drive away.
Initially, we note that the video evidence in this case established that the officers’ cruisers were not positioned in a way that made it difficult for Mr. McCarthy to back up and leave the scene. Regardless of that fact, we need not delve into all the factors that may or may not have established a seizure because Mr. McCarthy was unconscious at the time he claimed he was unlawfully seized.
For the reasons discussed … Mr. McCarthy’s claim that he was unlawfully seized lacks merit because he was unconscious and incapable of deciding whether he was free to leave when the officers parked their cruisers behind his vehicle, approached his vehicle, and illuminated his vehicle with a spotlight. Because of this, there was no seizure that implicated Mr. McCarthy’s Fourth Amendment rights.
For all the foregoing reasons, we find that the trial court did not err by overruling Mr. McCarthy’s motion to suppress. Accordingly, Mr. McCarthy’s sole assignment of error is overruled.
Information for this article was obtained from State v. McCarthy, 2022 – Ohio – 4738.
This case was issued by the Second District Appellate Court and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami and Montgomery.
- William McCarthy’s primary argument to suppress his methamphetamine was that Officer Ken Webster opened the door to his van, observed, confiscated, charged and later convict Mr. McCarthy in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against an unlawful search. The Community Caretaking Doctrine was applied since Mr. McCarthy was parked in a parking lot and was not in violation of any law, therefore Officer Webster did not possess Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause. Ultimately, the Second District Appellate Court held that entering the van was reasonable, quoting a 2001 case from the Fourth District “When an officer finds an unconscious, disoriented or injured person in a vehicle, it is reasonable for the officer to enter the vehicle to give aid and to determine the cause of the condition.” State v. Croston, 4th Dist. Athens No. 01CA22, 2001 WL 1346130, *3 (Oct. 30, 2001).
- McCarthy makes a second argument that he was unlawfully seized because this was a consensual encounter where the officer shone the spotlight in his van and had three officers approach. Law enforcement can unlawfully seize a person in a vehicle if officers block the vehicle in with cruisers. In this case, the court recognized that the officers did not block in Mr. McCarthy’s meth van. However, the court accurately notes that he could not have been unlawfully seized because HE WAS UNCONSCIOUS at the moment the officers approached.
- In 2021 the U.S. Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit issued decisions that restricted law enforcement from entering a home utilizing the Community Caretaking Doctrine.See Can the Community Caretaking Doctrine Permit Law Enforcement to Cross the Threshold of a Residence?, and Can Law Enforcement Cross the Threshold of a Doorway to Stand-By for Clothing under the Community Caretaking Doctrine?.
- Officer Webster should be highly commended for observing Mr. McCarthy’s van in an empty parking lot at 2:19 a.m. and initiate an investigation.Though this article reviews the legal doctrines involved, Officer Webster, Officer Savage and Officer Fry may have saved Mr. McCarthy’s life. Well done Officer Webster, Officer Savage and Officer Fry!
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