An Improper Welfare Check Can Result in Your Case Being Dropped

Were you arrested after the police discovered drugs, an illegal firearm and/or other contraband while checking on your safety while you were in your car?  If you were, a recent case from the First District Court of Appeals shows how you may be able to have your case dropped.

In Taylor v. State, Escambia County Sheriff’s Deputy David Ramires responded to a call at 4:30 a.m. about a man sleeping in a vehicle with a knife on his lap. Upon arriving at the reported location, Deputy Ramires observed Mr. Taylor was indeed sleeping in the driver’s seat of a vehicle with a “fairly large knife” on his lap.

Taylor’s car was legally parked, it was not running, and no one else was in the vehicle. Deputy Ramires did not smell alcohol. The surrounding area was not a high crime area.

At the ensuing suppression hearing, Deputy Ramires confirmed he had no reason to believe Taylor had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. Moreover, at no time during the suppression hearing did Ramires suggest he had a reason to be concerned for Taylor’s health or safety. Ramires then called for backup from other deputies, which he states he always does “even if it’s just a welfare check.”

Within fifteen minutes of Ramires’ call, about six deputies arrived at the location, including a K9 deputy. With backup present, Deputy Ramires opened the driver’s side door without warning, reached in and pulled Taylor, who was still asleep, out of the vehicle and confiscated the knife.  Ramires then spoke with Taylor, asking him the reason he was asleep in the vehicle and whether he needed medical attention.  Taylor stated he did not.

As the two spoke, the K9 deputy walked around Taylor’s vehicle and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics. Deputies then searched the vehicle and discovered illicit drugs and paraphernalia.

Taylor was charged with various drug-related offenses.  He subsequently moved to suppress all evidence of drugs and paraphernalia discovered during the incident. The trial court denied the motion.  Taylor later entered his plea while reserving his right to appeal the dispositive suppression ruling.

The appellate court reversed.  It first noted welfare checks are conducted pursuant to the “community caretaking doctrine,” which recognizes the duty of police officers to “ensure the safety and welfare of the citizenry at large.” Under this doctrine, law enforcement actions that may otherwise violate the Fourth Amendment can be deemed lawful if they occur while an officer is engaged in “community caretaking functions, totally devoid from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”

The court then observed because searches and seizures conducted in connection with welfare checks are “solely for safety reasons,” the scope of a welfare check is limited to prevent the exception from becoming an investigative tool to circumvent the Fourth Amendment. The purpose of a welfare check regulates its scope. If reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is or was ongoing is lacking, the welfare check should end as soon as a person’s safety is confirmed.

The court further noted both the scope and manner of a welfare check must be reasonable. While  law enforcement is not required to use the least intrusive methods available when performing community caretaking functions, a welfare check must be proportional to the perceived exigency at hand.

The Court found the issue was not whether the Deputy was unreasonable in performing a welfare check. Taylor appeared to be sleeping behind the wheel of his vehicle around 4:30AM with a “fairly large knife” sitting on his lap. Under these circumstances, a reasonable law enforcement officer would have justifiably conducted a welfare check on Taylor. Rather, the relevant issue was whether in doing so the Deputy exceeded the scope of a permissible welfare check.

The court then concluded the Deputy did exceed that scope when he opened the vehicle door without warning and pulled Taylor out of the vehicle while he was still asleep. At that moment, the welfare check became a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. At the time there were no indications Taylor was involved in any criminal activity, nor was he in a high crime area. And  Taylor did not appear unresponsive, unconscious, or experiencing any sort of health emergency.  And, according to the court, even were Taylor’s wellbeing objectively in doubt, the officer never  inquired into Taylor’s wellbeing before pulling him out of his vehicle.

Finally, that Taylor possessed a “fairly large knife” was alone insufficient to justify his seizure. Accordingly, the trial court’s conclusion the Deputy’s actions constituted a permissible welfare check was not supported by competent, substantial evidence.

If you were arrested as a result of the police finding contraband such as drugs, paraphernalia and/or illegal firearms during a welfare check, you should consult with a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer versed in recent law governing such checks.  Doing so will give you the best chance of having your charges dropped or reduced on the ground the scope of your welfare check exceeded what is permissible.  Call me for a free case strategy session to discuss how I can best help you with your welfare check case in Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Macclenny, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, St. Augustine or surrounding areas.




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