The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures means that police officers cannot stop a person while driving without reasonable suspicion of an offense, and they cannot search or arrest someone without probable cause. A person charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) and other offenses also has the right to confront their accuser, usually the arresting officer, under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. A DWI defendant recently appealed the denial of her motion to suppress in State v. Ciernak, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence leading to her traffic stop. She further argued that the officer lacked justification to stop her under the “community caretaking function,” an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s search-and-seizure provisions.
Court decisions at the state and federal levels have held that field sobriety tests and breath tests in DWI cases require probable cause, such as if an officer detects an odor of alcohol or other indicators of intoxication, if they observe the vehicle driving erratically, or if the driver admits to consuming alcohol. This standard is lessened, however, under the “community caretaking function,” which holds that police are permitted to stop vehicles in the absence of suspicion of any specific traffic or criminal offense, if they reasonably believe there is a danger to public safety.
The U.S. Supreme Court articulated the elements of the community caretaking function in 1973 in Cady v. Dombrowski, which involved the search of a vehicle involved in a traffic accident. The search yielded illegal firearms, and the court upheld the constitutionality of the search. The New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed the community caretaking function in situations like driving slowly on the shoulder of a highway with the left turn signal activated for approximately one-tenth of a mile (State v. Goetaski, 1986), and remaining stopped at a green traffic light for 23 seconds (State v. Hancock, 2014). The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, held that the community caretaking function does not justify entering a person’s home without consent to conduct a welfare check without “an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency” (State v. Vargas, 2013).