The Utah Supreme Court provided an analysis of Fourth Amendment search and seizures issues in the case of State v. Smith, 2022 UT 13. The opinion provides a number of points and clarifications that can be very helpful to defense counsel in challenging police search and seizure conduct.
Facts of the Case
The defendant, Smith, was parked in a McDonald’s parking lot. Employees had asked him to leave, but he drove around the lot and re-parked. Employees called police who, on their arrival found him asleep in the parked car. Under the guise of a “welfare check,” police called for backup, used their patrol vehicles to block his car, and put a bright light in his eyes. Following their initial interactions, police searched his vehicle and eventually arrested him for DUI. All of this was done without a warrant.
District Court Proceedings
In the district court, Smith filed a motion to suppress objecting to the warrantless search and seizure. In responding to the motion to suppress, the State relied only on the community caretaking doctrine as justification for the police action.
The district court denied the defense motion to suppress, agreeing with the prosecution’s position on the community caretaker doctrine. Smith entered a plea, under the principles of State v. Sery, 758 P.2d 935 (Utah Ct. App 1988), reserving the right to appeal the court’s denial of the motion to suppress.
Court of Appeals Affirms the District Court
After full briefing and argument, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress. The defense filed a petition for writ of certiorari, asking the Utah Supreme Court to review and reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Supreme Court Decision Reversing the Court of Appeals
The Supreme Court clarifies two main points in this opinion. First, warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively unreasonable, and the burden of proof rests with the prosecution to show otherwise. Second, the overall standard for justifying warrantless searches and seizures is reasonableness, even under the community care doctrine.
The Court found the police officers actions – calling backup, blocking him in, shining a bright light in his face – were not reasonable under the community caretaker doctrine where the primary concern is the safety of the individual or the community. Especially when the individual is just sleeping in a parked vehicle.
Also, the Court makes it very clear that the burden is on the government to justify all warrantless searches and seizures. The court states in its opinion, “If those in the legal profession are to remember anything from an introductory criminal procedure course, it’s that warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively unreasonable.”
The court opinion explains – over and over – that all a defendant must do in challenging the admissibility of evidence obtained from a warrantless search is to raise the issue by motion. When such a motion to suppress is filed, it is the government’s job to prove an exception. The defendant does not need to do anymore than show that there was a warrantless search and/or seizure and that the challenged evidence was obtained by police as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” The presumption of unreasonableness is rebuttable, but it is the government’s burden to present evidence sufficient to rebut that presumption.
Law enforcement actions may be appropriate when police stop to help someone in need – as community caretakers — as long as their conduct is reasonable. Stopping or detaining an individual for purposes of a “welfare check” may still constitute an intrusion on the individual’s privacy, which implicates Fourth Amendment protections. But the police conduct can be justified, if it is reasonable. In determining reasonableness, a court should consider:
- the degree to which an officer’s actions intrude upon a person’s freedom of movement and privacy; and
- whether the degree of public interest and the exigency of the situation justify the seizure for community caretaker purposes.
In making this analysis, a court must consider the totality of the circumstances. Think of a car parked at the side of the road on a high mountain pass, hood lifted, emergency blinkers flashing, covered by fresh snow, late at night and in sub-zero temperatures, late at night. Contrast that scenario with a car parked in a well-lit public parking lot, the driver seat reclined, windows rolled down, radio playing quietly, and the driver with his head tilted back and eyes closed on a warm summer evening. Even if the police conduct in each scenario is identical, the surrounding circumstances make a significant difference in the assessing the reasonableness of any police search or seizure.
Conclusions and Takeaways
First, in challenging the constitutionality of a warrantless search or seizure, the burden of proof is always on the government. Criminal defense attorneys do not have to do the prosecutors’ job for them. A defense attorney is not obligated to identify for the prosecutor every possible exception to the warrant requirement and then explain why such exceptions do not apply. Instead, it is the prosecutor’s burden of proof to identify an exception and demonstrate that, under the totality of the circumstances involved in a case, that exception applies and justifies the police officers’ conduct.
Second, “reasonableness” must guide courts in determining the constitutionality of police conduct. There is no specific formulaic rubric that a court can follow. Instead, the court has to consider all of the relevant facts and circumstances.