We don't just expect officers to investigate crimes and arrest people. We also expect them to protect the community and keep the peace, even when there's no evidence of criminal activity.
So do we expect police to check up on people who are unconscious, especially if they have appeared to have overdosed on heroin? Absolutely.
Do we also expect that these so-called “health and safety” checks may also morph into criminal investigations? Maybe, you say, but doesn't it depend on the facts?
Yes, it does. The Court of Appeals' recent decision in State v. Harris highlights the built-in tension between the helpful police officer and the suspicious police officer.
Harris wakes up to a bad dream
In December 2016, Kent police officers found two people either asleep or unconscious in a car in the middle of the day. (A concerned citizen had alerted police to the car and its occupants). The car was parked in public lot. Harris was slumped over in the front passenger seat. Based on their training and experience, police suspected that both of them had overdosed on heroin. Also, based on their experience, they knew that Kent was in the middle of opioid epidemic.
When they approached the car, the officers didn't see anything in or around the vehicle suggesting drug use or any other crime. Nevertheless, they opened the door. At this point, they saw drug paraphernalia consistent with heroin usage.
Police arrested Harris for possession of drug paraphernalia and the State filed charges in King County Superior Court.
The issue: did police have the right to open the car door? As with most legal issues, this simple question requires a less answer.
The Community Caretaking Exception: Explained
In an earlier post, I discussed search and seizure law in Washington, which focuses on when and under what circumstances police can search and detain citizens. To invade Harris' privacy (i.e. open the door), the State needed to prove that Kent police either had a warrant (which they didn't have), or prove an exception to the warrant requirement (which prosecutors claimed to have).
In Washington, one exception to the warrant requirement is the “community caretaking” exception. To justify this exception, the State must show that police reasonably believed that a defendant was in need of immediate emergency assistance at the time of the search or seizure. That's because the real purpose of the “search” is to help people, not search for crimes.
This exception, of course, has clear limits. Take this ridiculous but helpful example. Police see known drug dealer sitting in his car. Police break into car and find lots of drugs. Police say: “He looked like he had a bloody nose and looked like he needed assistance.” Clearly an abuse of the community caretaking exception.
Not surprisingly, courts “cautiously” apply this exception because we don't want police officers using the exception as a pretext to conducting criminal investigations.
In Harris's case, the State relied on the following facts to justify the community caretaking exception: (1) concerned citizen alerted police to potentially unconscious people; (2) vehicle parked in public place during the day; (3) community-wide opioid epidemic.
The trial judge thought this was enough, but the Court of Appeals said no.
First, sleeping in one's car during the daytime is not unusual, although it is not common. Sometimes people sleep in their cars during lunchtime, the Court noted.
Second, the fact that the car was parked in a busy parking lot in the middle of the day was also not that unusual. Relying on statistic from 2018, the Court noted that more than 2,000 homeless people in King County were living in their cars. For these people “sleeping during the day in a public place may provide a modicum of safety that might otherwise be available.”
Third, evidence of a community-wide opioid epidemic isn't good enough. To justify the community caretaking exception, the State has to rely on specific facts, not generalized community concerns, which “cannot justify invading the privacy of sleeping individuals.”
Had the facts been a little different, the State may have prevailed. For instance, had police seen lesions or wounds on either individual consistent with intravenous drug use, the Court may have found a true emergency. But the “crucial” missing link in this case was “unresponsiveness.” Had the Kent officers tried banging on the window or yelling before opening the door, the State probably would have won.
But they didn't, and the State didn't. The Court overturned Harris's conviction.