The Community Caretaker Doctrine and DUI

State v. Marcial: 2013 MT 242

Marco Marcial pled guilty in Bozeman Municipal Court to DUI. He appealed to District Court, challenging the denial of his motion to suppress, and the Municipal Court was affirmed. He then appealed that decision to the Montana Supreme Court who affirmed the District Court, but on alternate grounds.

In May of 2010, Marcial was driving in Bozeman around 1:00 a.m. when Sergeant Munter watched him execute a hard left turn, drive up on the sidewalk and then onto the grass before coming to an abrupt stop with his car perpendicular to the street. Sgt. Munter was concerned that Marcial had collided with a fire hydrant during this maneuver so he turned around and activated his rear warning lights, but not his top lights. Upon investigation, Sgt. Munter determined that there was no damage to Marcial’s vehicle or the fire hydrant.

Nonetheless, Sgt. Munter opened Marcial’s door and asked if he was ok. While speaking, he noticed the smell of alchohol and proceeded with a DUI investigation which resulted in Marcial’s arrest on suspicion of DUI. Marcial was not issued a traffic citation.

A suppression hearing was held in Bozeman Municipal Court where Sgt. Munter testified that his initial contact was a welfare check to ascertain if there was damage from colliding with the fire hydrant. The Municipal Judge found that the initial investigation was justified by the community caretaker doctrine, which then ripened into a DUI investigation. The District Court agreed, and specifically found that Sgt. Munter had objective, specific and articulable facts to suspect that a citizen was in need of help.

Ultimately, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed Marcial’s conviction. But, it rejected the argument that the community caretaker doctrine justified the stop – and its analysis of that law is very interesting. Montana adopted the community caretaker doctrine in 2002, stating that:

Local police officers, unlike federal officers, frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.

The community caretaker doctrine is about certain interactions between police and citizens that is unrelated to the detection and investigation of crimes. It may include assisting motorists who are stranded, involved in accidents, or otherwise in need of assistance. It can, in certain circumstances, evolve into an investigation of a crime – but it should not be a pretext for an investigation.

In this case, the Montana Supreme Court did not find that the community caretaker doctrine justified the search. They emphasized that the doctrine is intended to apply in situations where a citizen is in need of help or is in peril and should not typically involve a seizure. Given how common the community caretaker doctrine has become in justifying stops that result in arrests, this should serve as a reminder that it is not a blank check.

Marcial’s conviction was affirmed because Sgt. Munter’s observations did give rise to a particularized suspicion that a traffic offense had occurred – and that was sufficient to justify an investigative stop. But the Court’s rejection of the community caretaker doctrine’s application is still an important decision upholding the privacy rights of Montana citizens.

The Obscured License Plate and the Indigent DUI Defendant

Mark Haldane was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) at the conclusion of a jury trial in Bozeman Municipal Court. He appealed to the District Court for Gallatin County, which affirmed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. Haldane then appealed to the Montana Supreme Court arguing that: 1) when he was stopped based on an obstruction to his temporary registration permit by snow and a trailer hitch, it was a violation of his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure; 2) his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance; and 3) his sentence violated due process because it was based on his indigency.

In Montana, officers may initiate a traffic stop on any person or vehicle that is observed in circumstances that create a particularized suspicion that the person or occupant of the vehicle has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense. Section 61-3-301(1)(a), MCA, provides that “a person may not operate a motor vehicle … upon the public highways of Montana unless the motor vehicle … is properly registered and has the proper license plates conspicuously displayed on the motor vehicle.” Furthermore, § 61–3–301(1)(a), MCA, requires that the “license plate must be securely fastened to prevent it from swinging and may not be obstructed from plain view.” The statute defines “conspicuously displayed” as “obviously visible and firmly attached.”

Haldane argued that Montana’s weather and the prevalence of farm and other towing vehicles make it unlawful for law enforcement officers to effectuate a stop only because a temporary registration is obscured by snow and a ball hitch. He relied on concurrences by Justice Nelson in State v. Rutherford, 2009 MT 154, and State v. Cooper, 2010 MT 11. As Justice Nelson wrote in Cooper:

I continue to disagree with the proposition that, in this state, a license plate’s being obscured by the natural accumulation of the elements or driving conditions can constitute particularized suspicion for anything—except that Montanans often drive in foul weather and on foul roads.

However, the Supreme Court in this case rejected this analysis. Instead, it focused on case law establishing that a statutory violation alone is sufficient to establish particularized suspicion for an officer to make a traffic stop. And, the plain language of 61-3-301, MCA, requires that a license plate may not be obstructed from plain view and must be obviously visible. Under Montana law, a license plate obstructed by snow or a ball hitch is legally sufficient justification to authorize a traffic stop.

Haldane also argued that his sentence violated his due process rights because it was based on indigency. The State maintained that this argument had been waived because it wasn’t raised at the original sentencing, however the MT Supreme Court invoked the Lenihan exception which provides that an appellate court may review any sentence imposed in a criminal case if it is alleged that such sentence is illegal or exceeds statutory mandates, even if no objection is made at the time of sentencing.

In this case, the Court originally planned to sentence Haldane to six months with all but three days suspended. However, after it was revealed that Haldane was indigent and unable to make his payments, the Court increased his sentence to one year with all but three days suspended. Because his sentence was increased to the maximum sentence based on his inability to pay the fines and fees, it was a violation of due process.

State v. Haldane, 2013 MT 32

DUI and Citizen Informants in Montana

Often, DUI arrests are the result of citizen informants making calls to 911 which the officers rely on and make a traffic stop. Under the laws of Montana, an officer does not need to see illegal activity himself. The officer can rely on an informant’s statement that has sufficient indicia of reliability. The Montana Supreme Court has provided three factors to consider when deciding if a statement (and informant) is sufficiently reliable: 1) whether the informant identified himself; 2) whether the report makes it clear that it is based on the informant’s own observations; and 3) whether the officer corroborates the statement. As to #3, the officer can corroborate the statement without witnessing any illegal activity. The statement is considered corroborated if the officer finds the suspect or suspect’s vehicle substantially as described by the informant.

Here’s a more in-depth description of the relevant law:

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 11 of the Montana Constitution protect persons against unreasonable searches and seizures, including brief investigatory stops of vehicles. State v. Jarman, 1998 MT 277, ¶ 9, 967 P.2d 1099, ¶ 7 (citing United States v. Cortez (1981), 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S.Ct 690, 694-95, 66 L.Ed.2d 621, 628). To stop a person, an officer must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person of criminal activity. Jarman, ¶ 9 (citing Brown v. Texas (1979), 443 U.S. 47, 51, 99 S.ct 2637, 2640, 61 L.ed.2d 357, 362).

In regard to investigative stops, § 46-5-401, MCA, provides:

In order to obtain or verify an account of the person’s presence or conduct or to determine whether to arrest the person, a peace officer may stop any person or vehicle that is observed in circumstances that create a particularized suspicion that the person or occupant of the vehicle has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.

Moreover, “[t]o justify an investigative stop, an officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” State v. Martinez, 2003 MT 65, ¶ 21, 314 Mont. 434, ¶ 21, 67 P.3d 207, ¶ 21 (citations omitted).

An officer need not personally observe illegal activity in order to have particularized suspicion justifying an investigative stop. State v. Fellers, 2004 MT 321, ¶ 21, 324 Mont. 62, 101 P.3d 764. Particularized suspicion may be based on information obtained via a citizen informant, as long as the informant’s information contains sufficient indicia of reliability. State v. Pratt, 286 Mont. 156, 164-68, 951 P.2d 37, 42-44 (1997). For an officer to effect an investigative stop based on a citizen informant’s report: (1) the citizen informant must identify himself or herself to law enforcement, (2) the report must be based upon the informant’s personal observations, and (3) the officer must corroborate the informant’s information by observing illegal activity or finding the person, the vehicle, and the vehicle’s location substantially as described by the informant. State v. Wagner, 2003 MT 120, ¶ 13, 315 Mont. 498, ¶ 13, 68 P.3d 840, ¶ 13 (citation omitted).

Even where an informant has identified himself and given a report based on personal observations, the officer must “corroborate the informant’s information by observing illegal activity or finding the person, the vehicle, and the vehicle’s location substantially as described by the informant.” Wagner, ¶ 13.