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.

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