The Police Usually Can’t Order You Out of Your Parked Car

Were you ordered out of your parked car by the police who then found drugs, firearms or other contraband inside?  If so, depending on the facts of your particular situation, you may be able to get your case dropped.

In Taylor v. State, Escambia County Sheriff’s Deputy David Ramires responded to a call about a man asleep in a vehicle with a knife on his lap. Upon arrival at the reported location, Deputy Ramires observed the man, Aron Taylor, was sleeping in the driver’s seat of a vehicle with a “fairly large knife” on his lap. The vehicle was legally parked, its engine was off, and no one other than Taylor was in it.

Deputy Ramires did not smell an odor of alcohol. The surrounding area was not a high crime area. Deputy Ramires had no reason to believe Taylor had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. Moreover, at no time during the encounter did Ramires have any reason to be concerned for Taylor’s health or safety. Ramires then called for backup from other deputies, as was his practice “even if it’s just a welfare check.”

Within fifteen minutes, about six deputies arrived at the location, including a K9 deputy.  Deputy Ramires then 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. Deputy Ramires then asked Taylor why he was asleep in the vehicle and whether he needed medical attention, which he did not.  As the two spoke, the K9 deputy walked around Taylor’s vehicle and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics. A search of the vehicle revealed several illicit drugs and paraphernalia.

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

The appellate court concluded the warrantless intrusion into Taylor’s vehicle as he was sleeping was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment as part of a permissible welfare check. The court initially noted welfare checks come under the “community caretaking doctrine,” which recognizes the duty of police officers to “ensure the safety and welfare of the citizenry at large.” Under this judicially created doctrine, law enforcement actions that might otherwise violate the Fourth Amendment can be found lawful when they occur in connection with an officer’s “community caretaking functions, totally devoid from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”

Because searches and seizures conducted in connection with welfare checks are “solely for safety reasons,” the scope of an encounter associated with a welfare check is limited to prevent the exception from becoming a pretext for circumventing the Fourth Amendment. Without any reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is or was occurring, the welfare check should end when the need for it ends.

Both the scope and manner of a welfare check must be reasonable. While the court acknowledged law enforcement is not required to use the least intrusive methods available when performing community caretaking functions, a welfare check, particularly one that evolves into a search and seizure, must be proportionate with the perceived exigency at hand.

The court stressed the issue for determination was not whether the Deputy was unreasonable in performing a welfare check. Taylor appeared to be sleeping behind the wheel of his vehicle around 4:30 a.m. 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 issue was whether the Deputy exceeded the scope of a permissible welfare check. The court concluded the Deputy did exceed that scope when he opened the vehicle door without warning and pulled Taylor out of the vehicle while still asleep. At that moment, the welfare check became a seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. At that time, as acknowledged by the Deputy, there was no indication Taylor was involved in any criminal activity, nor was the area described as high in crime. Nor did Taylor appear unresponsive, unconscious, or to be experiencing any sort of health emergency.

To the contrary, during the suppression hearing, the Deputy never expressed any specific concern for Taylor’s health or safety, and he reiterated Taylor was merely sleeping. Even if Taylor’s wellbeing were objectively in doubt, the officer never sought to inquire into Taylor’s wellbeing before pulling him out of his vehicle. And, the mere presence of the knife was insufficient to justify the type of seizure that occurred to Taylor.  Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s conclusion the Deputy’s actions constituted a permissible welfare check and its denial of Taylor’s motion to suppress.  Having thereby lost all its evidence against Taylor, the State subsequently dropped his charges.

If you were in a parked car when officers found contraband on you or in the car,  you should consult with a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer knowledgeable about the current law governing welfare checks.  If you do, you will have the best chance of getting your charges reduced or outright dropped.  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, Orange Park, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, St. Augustine or surrounding areas.

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