Police generally need either a warrant or “reasonable suspicion” that a crime or traffic violation has occurred to pull over a vehicle.  In this case, an officer said he heard someone yelling in a car and the driver “gesturing wildly.” He pulled him over and ultimately charged him with OVI.  

The driver challenged the stop arguing that yelling does not fall within the “community caretaker / emergency” exception to the warrant requirement.  In other words, an officer cannot pull a car over simply because he hears yelling coming from the car.  The court agreed, the stop was found unconstitutional and the OVI dismissed. 

Driver Was Yelling and Gesturing With Window Open While Arguing with Wife on the Phone

The defendant – who had his driver’s side window rolled down – drove past a marked police car.   The officer said the driver was making “exaggerated arm movements” and loud yelling was coming from the car.  He couldn’t understand what was being said. 

The officer said he couldn’t see in the back seat and was “concerned that an assault may have been occurring in the vehicle.”   He followed the car and did not witness any evidence of impaired driving, speeding, or any traffic violations.  Nonetheless, he decided to pull the car over.

The officer activated his lights and the defendant made a right turn.  At this point, the officer said the driver committed a marked lanes violation (but the cruiser video showed no marked lanes violation).   The car drove for about 3 blocks and then pulled into a private driveway.

The defendant pulled in the driveway and started to open his car door.   The officer ordered him to stay in the car.   The officer approached and testified that he smelled a strong odor of alcohol on the driver’s breath, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and delayed movements.

The defendant explained that everything was fine and no assault had occurred.  He was just having a heated argument with his wife over the phone, which was why he was gesturing and yelling.   He admitted to drinking “a couple of beers” before driving.  The defendant’s wife arrived home soon after and confirmed that she had been arguing with him on the phone.

Nonetheless, the officer asked the defendant to step out of the car and perform field sobriety tests.  He failed the tests and was arrested for OVI.

The defendant filed a Motion to Suppress arguing that there was no “reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity” and so no lawful reason to pull him over.

“COMMUNITY CARETAKING” EXCEPTION TO FOURTH AMENDMENT

Generally, police must have reasonable suspicion that a driver has committed a criminal or traffic violation before pulling the car over.  One exception to this rule is the community caretaking / emergency exception.  

Unlike in a house or office, police have frequent interaction with vehicles, such as helping disabled vehicles or investigating after an accident.  These “community caretaking” functions are separate from the police’s investigation of crimes.

One of the first cases explaining the “community caretaking” standard involved an officer that stopped a car with out-of-state plates who the officer says he thought was lost.  But the court said that even if the officer had good intentions in providing directions, stopping a car because the officer thinks it might be lost is not permitted under the Fourth Amendment.  

The risk of abuse of power is too high to allow these kinds of “well-intentioned” stops.   Officers could pull over any car for any reason and then tell the court “I thought he was lost.”

In Ohio, “community-caretaking/emergency-aid” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement allows a law-enforcement officer to stop a car without a warrant if he has “objectively reasonable grounds to believe that there is an immediate need for his or her assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury.” 

Yelling in a Car Does Not Justify a “Community Caretaker / Emergency” Stop

Here, the prosecution claimed that the officer was acting as a “bona fide community caretaker” when he pulled the car over to investigate why someone was yelling.  

Had the car been stopped, the officer could have approached the car and talked to the occupants in a non-intrusive manner.  But without more specific signs that someone in the car needed help, he was not permitted to pull the car over.   Besides the yelling, there was no other evidence someone was in distress.  There were no traffic violations and no sign of impaired driving.  

If police were allowed to pull cars over just because someone was yelling, police could pull over anyone leaving a sporting event, concert, or rally just because of “one or more occupant’s ruckus behavior.”   Someone yelling from a car does not justify a community caretaker / emergency stop.  

Thus, the OVI conviction was ultimately overturned and dismissed.  If you have been charged with an OVI in Ohio and have concerns about the validity of the stop, talk to one of our OVI attorneys about the circumstances of your case.  

State v. Barzacchini, 2014-Ohio-3467.

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