OVI CONVICTION REVERSED WHERE THE STATE FAILED TO SHOW AN OFFICER HAD REASONABLE SUSPICION TO DETAIN A DRIVER BEYOND CHECKING ON HER WELLBEING

The Court of Appeals for the State of Ohio recently overturned an OVI conviction where an officer, who was alerted to a driver sleeping in their car in a parking lot, failed to demonstrate that he had probable cause to arrest the driver for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol (OVI). State v. Mackim, 2018-Ohio-3033.

ovi community caretaking asleep driver

Driver Asleep in Her in Gas Station Parking Lot; Gas Station Owner Called Police

In Makim, the owner of a gas station called police describing a truck parked in the gas station lot with a woman passed out behind the wheel.  The gas station owner said the truck had been in the parking lot for 20 to 25 minutes and he wanted the driver to leave the premises.

The Officer testified that he arrived at the gas station at approximately 10:00 a.m. and found the truck parked by the dumpster and a woman passed out in the driver’s seat. The Officer testified he approached the truck and knocked on the driver’s side window. The driver was sitting sideways and leaning over towards the middle console with her back to the driver’s door.

When he knocked, the driver sat up, turned forward in the driver’s seat and opened the driver’s side door. The Officer asked what she was doing and she said she was laying down and taking a break because she didn’t feel well.

When Defendant opened the door, the officer smelled alcohol. When asked for her driver’s license, the driver handed the officer her credit card instead.  Based on these two indicators, the Officer asked the drier to step out of the truck and do field sobriety tests. Once outside of the truck, the driver admitted to drinking. She was arrested for OVI.  The trial court found her guilty in a jury trial and she appealed her conviction.

What is the Police’s Community Caretaking Function?

Police officer’s community caretaking function is an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Community caretaking allows police officers to  “‘police officers to stop a person to render aid if they reasonably believe that there is an immediate need for their assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury.’” State v. Clapper, 9th Dist. Medina No. 11CA00031-M, 2012-Ohio-1382, ¶ 12

Courts have held that an officer may intrude onto a person’s privacy where the officer reasonably believes he or she must interfere in order to “protect life or avoid serious injury.” State v. Clapper, 2012-Ohio-1382

An officer may expand the nature of his investigation beyond providing assistance to investigating for potential wrongdoing if the officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. State v. Martin, 2018-Ohio-1705. The officer may only place someone under arrest when there is probable cause criminal activity has taken place.

In Mackim, the arresting officer claimed his caretaking function expanded into a criminal investigation when Defendant opened her car door and the officer immediately smelled alcohol. He then testified that by Defendant handing her credit card to the officer instead of her driver’s license was also an indicator Defendant was operating the vehicle while impaired. At that point the officer believed he had a reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant to have her perform field sobriety tests.

OVI Reversed Because the Trial Court Failed to Make Findings of Fact Re: Reasonable Suspicion for Field Sobriety Tests and Probable Cause for Arrest

 The Court of Appeals reversed Defendant’s conviction.

The officer properly approached the car based on him community caretaking function.  But once the driver responded that she was just tired and was fine, the court found it unclear whether the stop should have ended.

The trial court failed to determine whether a smell of alcohol plus handing the officer her credit card rather than her license was sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion for field sobriety tests. Further, the court also failed to examine facts that would support probable cause for arrest.

Thus, the court overturned the OVI conviction and remanded the case to the trial court to look at the case again and determine whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain her beyond checking on her well-being and whether he had probable cause to arrest.

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