from the Iowa District Court for Story County, James B.
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.
J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik and Zachary Miller,
Assistant Attorneys General, Jessica Reynolds, County
Attorney, and Shean Fletchall, Assistant County Attorney, for
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.
Background Facts and Proceedings.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Standard of Review.
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
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.
The Community Caretaking Exception.
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).
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").
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
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.
Community Caretaking Under the Fourth Amendment.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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)).
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.
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.
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). 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.
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
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
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 ...