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State v. Coffman

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 22, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
TERRY LEE COFFMAN, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Story County, James B. Malloy, Judge.

         The defendant seeks further review of a court of appeals decision affirming his conviction for operating while intoxicated, contending that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress. DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS AND JUDGMENT OF DISTRICT COURT AFFIRMED.

          Matthew T. Lindholm of Gourley, Rehkemper, & Lindholm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik and Zachary Miller, Assistant Attorneys General, Jessica Reynolds, County Attorney, and Shean Fletchall, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

          MANSFIELD, Justice.

         This case requires us to decide whether an officer was justified in pulling behind a vehicle and activating his emergency lights when the vehicle was stopped by the side of a highway after 1:00 a.m. with its brake lights engaged. We conclude the officer's actions were justified under the "community caretaking function" exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. For this reason, we affirm the conviction for operating while intoxicated that resulted from this roadside encounter.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         In the early hours of May 22, 2016, Story County Sheriff's Deputy Nicholas Hochberger was on assigned patrol in the southern part of the county. When he was outside Slater at approximately 1:08 a.m., he spotted a vehicle pulled over on the side of the highway with its brake lights on. Deputy Hochberger turned on his flashing red and blue lights, and he pulled to a stop behind the parked vehicle. Deputy Hochberger later testified his objective in making this kind of stop is to "check on the welfare of the occupants or see if they need any assistance, if they have vehicle problems or medical problems, or if they're just talking on their phone." Deputy Hochberger also explained why he activated his flashers:

First reason is it alerts traffic approaching any other direction that I am stopped on the side of the roadway and that there is potentially a hazard there; and number two is to alert the driver or subjects of the vehicle that it's just not a stranger pulling up behind them. It is a law enforcement officer stopping to check on them.

         Deputy Hochberger did not run the vehicle's license plate through dispatch before exiting his vehicle. Instead, he immediately approached the driver's side window on foot to speak with the driver. While passing the rear of the vehicle, the deputy noticed a registration violation because the license plate bracket covered the sticker and it was not possible to tell whether the registration was current.

         Upon reaching the driver's window, Deputy Hochberger immediately detected a strong odor of alcoholic beverage and noticed the driver's red and watery eyes. Deputy Hochberger's initial questions were directed at determining if there was an emergency or if the occupants needed assistance. He asked, "Hi guys, everything okay tonight?"

         When the driver, Terry Coffman, and his wife indicated that they were okay, Deputy Hochberger then asked, "[W]hat's going on?" Coffman answered that his wife was having neck issues, so he had pulled over to give her a back rub. At that point, Deputy Hochberger requested Coffman's license and registration and asked Coffman how much he had had to drink that night. Coffman replied that he had consumed four beers, the most recent a half hour before the stop.

         Deputy Hochberger administered field sobriety tests, which Coffman failed. Coffman was belligerent while performing the tests. After also administering a preliminary breath test, the deputy determined that Coffman was under the influence of alcohol and placed Coffman under arrest. At the jail, implied consent was invoked, and Coffman refused to submit to the chemical test.

         On June 16, Coffman was charged by trial information in the Iowa District Court for Story County with operating while intoxicated (OWI), first offense, in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2, a serious misdemeanor. See Iowa Code § 321J.2(2)(a) (2016).

         On August 25, Coffman filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the stop of his vehicle. He alleged the stop violated his rights under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. An evidentiary hearing on Coffman's motion took place on September 9, and the court issued a written ruling denying the motion on September 12.

         Coffman filed a motion to reconsider, to reopen the record, and for expanded findings and conclusions. This motion asked the court for the first time "to distinguish the Fourth Amendment protections from those under the Iowa Constitution." In particular, Coffman asked the court either to limit the community caretaking doctrine "to those cases where emergency aid or assistance is needed or alternatively apply[] the exclusionary rule to those cases where evidence of criminal activity is gathered as a result of a community caretaking seizure." The court issued expanded findings and conclusions but confirmed its denial of the motion to suppress.

         In its order, the court noted,

A car parked on the shoulder of a highway at 1:00 a.m. in a rural area in Iowa should raise a number of concerns. There is a safety issue in having a vehicle parked within two feet of the traveled portion of a highway, especially at 1:00 a.m., in an area that is not lighted. Second, the occupant(s) of the vehicle might have car problems or medical issues that they are experiencing. Most people would not simply pull over to the side of the road in this type of setting at such an hour. It would have been irresponsible for Deputy Hochberger to simply drive by without checking on the vehicle.

         Coffman waived his right to a jury trial and stipulated to a trial on the minutes of testimony. On October 12, the court found Coffman guilty of OWI, first offense, in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2. The district court sentenced Coffman to two days in jail and ordered him to pay a fine and surcharges.

         Coffman appealed, claiming that the stop of his vehicle and person violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which affirmed Coffman's conviction, concluding that the stop demonstrated a "good-faith effort by a peace officer to assist the motorist as a public servant rather than to launch a criminal investigation." We granted Coffman's application for further review.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Coffman argues that the seizure violated his rights under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. "When a defendant challenges a district court's denial of a motion to suppress based upon the deprivation of a state or federal constitutional right, our standard of review is de novo." State v. Storm, 898 N.W.2d 140, 144 (Iowa 2017) (quoting State v. Brown, 890 N.W.2d 315, 321 (Iowa 2017)). We examine the whole record and "make 'an independent evaluation of the totality of the circumstances.'" Id. (quoting Brown, 890 N.W.2d at 321). "Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstances." State v. Kurth, 813 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Krogmann, 804 N.W.2d 518, 523 (Iowa 2011)).

         III. Analysis.

         Coffman claims that he was lawfully parked on the shoulder of the highway and that Deputy Hochberger's actions violated the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8. See U.S. Const. amend. IV ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable seizures and searches, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but on probable cause . . . ."); Iowa Const. art. I, § 8 ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause . . . ."). The State counters that the seizure of Coffman's vehicle was justified by the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement under both the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8.

         A. The Community Caretaking Exception.

         The community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement, recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski, is "totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute." 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 2528 (1973). This exception "involves the duty of police officers to help citizens an officer reasonably believes may be in need of assistance." State v. Tyler, 867 N.W.2d 136, 170 (Iowa 2015) (quoting State v. Kern, 831 N.W.2d 149, 172- 73 (Iowa 2013)). We have addressed this exception on a number of occasions under both the United States and Iowa Constitutions. See, e.g., id. at 167, & n.15, 170-71 (Fourth Amendment); Kern, 831 N.W.2d at 172- 74(article I, section 8); Kurth, 813 N.W.2d at 274-81 (Fourth Amendment); State v. Wilkes, 756 N.W.2d 838, 842 (Iowa 2008) (Fourth Amendment); State v. Tague, 676 N.W.2d 197, 204-06 (Iowa 2004) (article I, section 8); State v. Crawford, 659 N.W.2d 537, 541-44 (Iowa 2003) (Fourth Amendment); State v. Moore, 609 N.W.2d 502, 503-04 (Iowa 2000) (en banc) (Fourth Amendment); State v. Carlson, 548 N.W.2d 138, 140-41, 143 (Iowa 1996) (Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8).

         The community caretaking exception has three branches: "(1) the emergency aid doctrine, (2) the automobile impoundment/inventory doctrine, and (3) the 'public servant' exception." Tyler, 867 N.W.2d at 170 (quoting Kurth, 813 N.W.2d at 274). The emergency-aid and public-servant doctrines are closely related. See Kurth, 813 N.W.2d at 274 (quoting Crawford, 659 N.W.2d at 541).

Under the emergency aid doctrine, the officer has an immediate, reasonable belief that a serious, dangerous event is occurring. . . . [I]n contrast, the officer in a public servant situation might or might not believe that there is a difficulty requiring his general assistance. For example, an officer assists a motorist with a flat tire under the public servant doctrine, but an officer providing first aid to a person slumped over the steering wheel with a bleeding gash on his head acts pursuant to the emergency aid doctrine.

Tyler, 867 N.W.2d at 170 (alterations in original) (quoting Crawford, 659 N.W.2d at 541-42). Other than that slight distinction, the two doctrines are analytically similar. See id.; see also Kern, 831 N.W.2d at 173 (describing them as "very similar").

         We have said that application of the community caretaking exception involves a three-step analysis:

(1) was there a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment?; (2) if so, was the police conduct bona fide community caretaker activity?; and (3) if so, did the public need and interest outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the citizen?

Crawford, 659 N.W.2d at 543; accord Tyler, 867 N.W.2d at 170; Kern, 831 N.W.2d at 173; Kurth, 813 N.W.2d at 277. We have cautioned that "[e]very community caretaking case must be assessed according to its own unique set of facts and circumstances." Kurth, 813 N.W.2d at 277.

         B. Community Caretaking Under the Fourth Amendment.

         Coffman first challenges Deputy Hochberger's stop under the Fourth Amendment. We have not previously considered whether a law enforcement officer is justified in parking behind and activating his emergency lights to check on a motorist pulled over on the side of the highway in the middle of the night. In Moore, we held that a park ranger properly exercised a public-safety function when she stopped the defendant's vehicle to warn him that his speed posed a danger to park campers, even though he was driving under the speed limit. 609 N.W.2d at 503-04. In Kurth, we held that a police officer was not justified in blocking in the defendant's vehicle with his own where the defendant had turned into a restaurant parking lot and parked that vehicle after apparently running over a road sign that had fallen into the street. See 813 N.W.2d at 278-81. That seizure occurred after the officer had already ascertained that the damage to the vehicle was "not significant" and the defendant "was in a position to address that damage." Id. at 280.

         Other state courts, however, have addressed situations close to the present case. As we pointed out in Kurth, it is "not surprising" that much of the relevant caselaw has arisen in state courts "in light of the fact that community caretaking is generally the role of local police rather than federal officers." Id. at 273-74. The majority of other state courts have sustained seizures similar to the one that occurred in the present case.

         The Illinois Supreme Court upheld a stop under the community caretaking doctrine in People v. McDonough, 940 N.E.2d 1100, 1110 (Ill. 2010). A trooper was on patrol at 7:30 p.m. when he noticed a car stopped on the shoulder of a busy highway with the headlights off. Id. at 1103. The trooper "decided to inquire whether the car's occupants needed assistance." Id. The trooper turned on his overhead oscillating emergency lights for safety purposes and pulled in behind the stopped vehicle. Id. at 1103-04. The trooper's initial question upon approaching the vehicle was whether everything was okay. Id. at 1104. The driver rolled down the window further to answer, and the trooper smelled the odor of an alcoholic beverage. Id. After failing field sobriety tests, the driver was arrested. Id.

         The Illinois court determined that the seizure was permissible under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 1109. In coming to this conclusion, the court said,

[I]t was reasonable for [the trooper] to approach defendant's vehicle to offer any aid required under the circumstances. The public has a substantial interest in ensuring that police offer assistance to motorists who may be stranded on the side of a highway, especially after dark and in areas where assistance may not be close at hand. In the proper performance of his or her duties, a law enforcement officer has the right to make a reasonable investigation of vehicles parked along roadways to offer such assistance as might be needed and to inquire into the physical condition of persons in vehicles. The occupant of a parked vehicle may be intoxicated, suffering from sudden illness, or may be only asleep. Under these circumstances, it is within a responsible law enforcement officer's authority to determine whether assistance is needed.

Id. at 1109-10 (citation omitted).

         In State v. Anderson, the Utah Supreme Court likewise held that the seizure of a motorist who had stopped his vehicle on the side of the road was justified by the community caretaking doctrine under the Fourth Amendment. 362 P.3d 1232, 1234 (Utah 2015). Late one evening in December, the defendant had pulled his car to the side of the road and turned his hazards on. Id. "Because of the hazard lights, the cold weather, and the late hour, the deputies decided to stop and check on the welfare of any occupants of the vehicle." Id. The deputies engaged their red and blue flashing lights and pulled up behind the stopped vehicle. Id. After they asked him whether he needed assistance, the deputies noticed that he had bloodshot eyes. Id. They ultimately "obtained a warrant authorizing them to arrest [the defendant], obtain blood or urine from him, and search his vehicle," within which they found marijuana. Id. at 1235. The court concluded that the stop was minimally invasive into the defendant's rights and that "a reasonable officer would have cause to be concerned about the welfare of a motorist in [the defendant's] situation." Id. at 1239-40. The court further noted,

A motorist may have many motivations for pulling to the side of a highway and engaging hazard lights, ranging from the mundane to the life-threatening. The motorist could be lost, disciplining rowdy children, sleeping, or answering a cell phone call. But there is also a good chance that the motorist has run out of gas, has mechanical problems, or, worse, is experiencing a medical emergency. The fact that it is very cold and dark would exacerbate the duress of a motorist in need of aid. Given the decent odds that a motorist in this situation may need help, an officer would have reason to be concerned and to at least stop to determine whether assistance is needed.

Id. at 1240.

         In Ullom v. Miller, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals likewise found a seizure of a motorist was justified under the community caretaking exception under both the Fourth Amendment and the West Virginia Constitution. 705 S.E.2d 111, 123 ( W.Va. 2010). The defendant there had parked on the side of the road and turned on the parking lights. Id. at 116. The vehicle's hazard lights were not on, and the engine was not running. Id. When the officer came across the vehicle at dusk during his patrol, he had no other indication the driver needed assistance. Id. The officer nevertheless "initiated a road safety check of the vehicle by stopping his cruiser and approaching the vehicle." Id. When he conversed with the driver, he noted signs of intoxication. Id. Upon failing sobriety tests, the driver was arrested for driving under the influence. Id.

         The West Virginia court held that given the circumstances of the case, "a reasonable and prudent officer in such a setting would have reasonably suspected that an occupant of the vehicle was in need of immediate help." Id. at 123. Furthermore, the officer's "initiating reasons for his encounter with [the defendant] were, when viewed objectively, quite clearly a reasonable, independent and substantial justification for any intrusion he made into [the defendant's] privacy." Id.

         In State v. Kramer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court also affirmed the seizure of a motorist over federal and state constitutional objections. 759 N.W.2d 598, 601 (Wis. 2009). In that case, the defendant's vehicle was legally parked on the shoulder of a highway after the sun had set. Id. The driver had turned the hazards on while he made a phone call. Id. A sheriff's deputy spotted him, activated his cruiser's emergency overhead lights, and stopped behind the parked car. Id. The deputy's reason for stopping was "to check to see if there actually was a driver, [and to] offer any assistance." Id. (alteration in original). The deputy activated his own emergency lights for "[s]afety considerations so other traffic could see [him]." Id. (first alteration in original). Although he approached the vehicle shining his flashlight and with his hand on his holstered gun-a practice the deputy regularly followed "for safety considerations"-he asked the driver if he could help with something and said he was "[j]ust making sure [there were] no vehicle problems." Id. at 601-02. During the interaction, the deputy could tell that the driver was intoxicated, and the driver was then arrested. Id. at 602.

         The Wisconsin court held that the seizure was justified. Id. at 612. It concluded the deputy had "an objectively reasonable basis for deciding that a motorist may have been in need of assistance when he stopped behind [the defendant's] vehicle." Id. at 610. The court also noted "that the public has a substantial interest in ensuring that police assist motorists who may be stranded on the side of a highway, especially after dark and outside of an urban area when help is not close at hand." Id. at 611.

         In State v. Lovegren, the Montana Supreme Court similarly upheld a seizure of a motorist based on the community caretaking doctrine. 51 P.3d 471, 476 (Mont. 2002). There, an officer noticed a vehicle parked on the side of the highway at 3:05 a.m. Id. at 471-72. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer found the defendant asleep in the driver's seat and knocked on the window. Id. at 472. When the defendant did not wake up, the officer opened the door. Id. The defendant suddenly awoke and blurted, "I was drinking." Id. The officer spotted other signs of intoxication, and after the defendant failed the field sobriety tests, he was charged with driving under the influence. Id.

         Overruling both federal and state constitutional objections, the Montana court found the officer had acted properly because the officer had "objective, specific and articulable facts suggesting that [the defendant] might be in need of assistance." Id. at 476. According to the court,

While [the defendant] might simply have been asleep, he might just as likely have been ill and unconscious and in need of help. Under these circumstances, Officer Hofer had the right to check on [the defendant's] welfare and to open the door of [the defendant's] vehicle when [the defendant] failed to respond to a knock on the window of his vehicle. As the State points out, it would have been a dereliction of Officer Hofer's duties if, after knocking on the window and obtaining no response, Officer Hofer walked away and continued on his patrol.

Id.

         The Tennessee Supreme Court confronted a similar situation in State v. McCormick and found the seizure was justified by the community caretaking doctrine under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. 494 S.W.3d 673, 689 (Tenn. 2016). At 2:45 a.m., a law enforcement officer pulled behind a vehicle that was sitting in the entrance to a shopping center parking lot. Id. at 676. The shopping center was closed, and the back left wheel and rear portion of the vehicle were "partially in the roadway." Id. The officer parked behind the vehicle and turned on his blue lights for safety reasons. Id. He proceeded "to do a welfare check on the subject in the vehicle." Id. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel, the engine was running, and the headlights were on. Id. When the officer was unable to awaken the driver by tapping on the window, he opened the car door. Id. The officer immediately detected signs that the driver had been drinking. Id. The driver failed field sobriety tests and was arrested for driving under the influence. Id. at 676-77.

         The Tennessee court determined that the officer's conduct fell within the community caretaking exception. Id. at 688-89. The court explained,

Given the time, 2:45 a.m., location, and limited accessibility and availability of assistance from sources other than the officer, the risk of danger had the officer provided no assistance was substantial. Indeed, Sgt. Trivette would have been "derelict in his duty as a police officer" had he failed to take steps to determine the defendant's welfare. Again, the defendant was slumped over the steering wheel, either asleep or unconscious, with his vehicle protruding partially onto the public roadway, placing him at risk of injury or death from a rear end collision. Having carefully considered the relevant facts, we conclude that Sgt. Trivette's actions were well within the community caretaking exception.

Id. at 688-89 (quoting Commonwealth v. Fisher, 13 N.E.3d 629, 633 (Mass. App. Ct. 2014)).

         In State v. Kleven, the South Dakota Supreme Court likewise found that an officer properly exercised his community caretaker function, and therefore concluded the officer's seizure of a motorist was permissible under the Fourth Amendment. 887 N.W.2d 740, 743-44 (S.D. 2016). The officer saw a vehicle parked on the side of the street in the early hours of the morning in a downtown area. Id. at 741. He requested a license plate check. Id. After waiting some twenty minutes, he decided to park his patrol car directly behind the defendant's vehicle and arranged for another patrol car to park directly in front. Id. The officer believed the driver was passed out or asleep. Id. The officer then knocked on the car window; the defendant stirred but did not acknowledge the officer. Id. The officer opened the door and detected the odor of an alcoholic beverage. Id. The driver was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Id. The court determined that, given the circumstances, the officer had sufficient reason to conduct a health and safety check. Id. at 743.

         The North Dakota Supreme Court upheld the seizure of a motorist in Borowicz v. North Dakota Department of Transportation after an officer noticed a vehicle parked on a service road with its headlights on but the motor off. 529 N.W.2d 186, 187 (N.D. 1995). When the officer saw someone slumped in the driver's seat, he pulled behind the vehicle and activated his overhead lights. Id. at 187-88. He approached the driver's side, knocked on the window, and observed that the driver appeared to be asleep. Id. He knocked harder with his flashlight, awakening the driver, who then opened the door to the pickup. Id. In the subsequent interaction, the officer noticed signs of intoxication, and the defendant was eventually arrested. Id. at 187. The court concluded the officer's conduct was reasonable under the circumstances. Id. at 188-89.

         In People v. Laake, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld a vehicle seizure under the community caretaking doctrine of the Fourth Amendment. 809 N.E.2d 769, 772-73 (Ill.App.Ct. 2004).[1] There, the officer received a report at approximately 3:00 a.m. from police dispatch about a possible intoxicated driver in his area of patrol. Id. at 770-71. While searching for that car, he happened upon a vehicle stopped on the shoulder with its brake lights on. Id. at 771. He pulled behind the vehicle and activated his overhead emergency lights. Id. His purpose was "to check on the welfare of [the] driver." Id. Additionally, "[t]he area was isolated and not well lighted." Id. During the officer's initial encounter with the driver, he noticed telltale signs of intoxication and that the driver had a flat tire. Id. The driver was ultimately convicted of driving under the influence. Id.

         The appellate court concluded that there was "nothing wrong" with the officer's "check[ing] on the welfare of [the car's] driver." Id. at 773. "Police officers routinely provide roadside assistance in addition to conducting criminal investigation. Such assistance is designed to ensure public safety, and we do not believe that any concomitant technical detention is unreasonable." Id.

         In Marsh v. State, an Alaska appellate court found that a seizure was permitted under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. 838 P.2d 819, 820 (Alaska Ct. App. 1992). During the early evening hours, a state trooper noticed a vehicle that appeared to be stalled on the side of a highway. Id. The trooper activated his overhead lights and pulled behind the car; activation of the lights was "standard police procedure so that traffic on the highway could see [the trooper] parked along the road in the dark." Id. At this point, the driver started the engine of his vehicle. Id. Nonetheless, the officer proceeded to speak to the driver and thus learned his license had been revoked. Id. Assuming for purposes of appeal that there had been a seizure, the appellate court determined that the trooper acted properly pursuant to his community caretaking function in finding out whether the driver needed assistance. Id.

         In Kozak v. Commissioner of Public Safety, a Minnesota appellate court decided that a deputy's conduct was justified under the community caretaking exception. 359 N.W.2d 625, 628 (Minn.Ct.App. 1984). The defendant had parked on the side of the road and fallen asleep. Id. at 627. A deputy stopped to investigate and knocked on the window to awaken the driver. Id. The driver opened the door, and the deputy noted signs of intoxication. Id. The driver failed the field sobriety tests and was arrested. Id. The court noted,

In the proper performance of his duties, an officer has not only the right but a duty to make a reasonable investigation of vehicles parked along roadways to offer such assistance as might be needed and to inquire ...

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