Barry Kamins
Barry Kamins (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

In People v. Tardi,1 the New York Court of Appeals has recently upheld the towing, impoundment and inventory search of an automobile, holding that these actions were, under the facts of the case, consistent with a “community caretaking function.” This is the first time the court has adopted this theory, although it has made oblique references to it in the past.2 What is the origin of this doctrine and, more importantly, what are its boundaries and scope?

Background

Almost 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court first referred to the community caretaking functions of police departments. In Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973), the court noted that these functions are totally divorced from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to criminal conduct. They can include the resolution of noise disputes, searching for missing persons, answering complaints about injured animals, assisting the elderly, sick and homeless, and checking to ensure that businesses are secured at night.

In Cady, a Chicago police officer was arrested for drunk driving in Wisconsin and taken to a hospital where he lapsed into a coma. The police towed the officer’s car to a garage where it was left unattended. Local police, believing that Chicago police officers were required to carry their revolvers at all times, were unable to locate the weapon in the passenger compartment of the vehicle. Ultimately, a police officer opened the trunk of the vehicle, for the purpose of locating the weapon, and stumbled upon evidence of a murder.

In upholding the warrantless search of the trunk, the court held that it was reasonable for the local police to take custody of the officer’s disabled vehicle because it constituted a nuisance. In addition, it was reasonable for the police to search the trunk in the exercise of a community caretaking function, i.e., protecting the public from the possibility that an unsecured gun would fall into the wrong hands.

‘Tardi’

In Tardi, the defendant was arrested for shoplifting in a Target store in Cheektowaga, New York. After the defendant was arrested outside the store, security personnel in the store informed the officers that they wanted the defendant’s vehicle removed from the store’s parking lot. They informed the police that they had observed the defendant, who was known to them from prior shoplifting incidents, park a vehicle in their parking lot.

Police officers, acting upon that request, and pursuant to a written policy of the Cheektowaga Police Department, impounded the vehicle and performed an inventory search of its contents prior to towing it away. A handgun was found in the vehicle during the search.

In upholding the decision to tow the vehicle and conduct an inventory search, the court held that the police were exercising a valid community caretaking function. The court noted that, upon the defendant’s arrest, the vehicle would have been left unattended indefinitely in the parking lot, which had a history of vandalism. Thus, under a public safety theory, and consistent, with the police department’s written policy of ensuring the safety of a vehicle, the decision made by the police was reasonable and came within the parameters of a community caretaking function. Significantly, the court found no indication that the decision by the police was motivated by an intent to discover evidence of criminal activity in the defendant’s vehicle.

In her lone dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera opined that the police conduct was unreasonable because it did not conform to a reasonable community caretaking function, i.e., there was no threat to public safety under the facts of this case. Initially, the defendant was not arrested while operating the vehicle and, upon his arrest, the vehicle was parked unobtrusively and safely. In addition, the car did not jeopardize the efficient movement of vehicular traffic nor did it create a hazard to other drivers. Finally, the car was not a “luxury” car and, as such, did not present an appreciable risk of vandalism or theft. Judge Rivera concluded that “[t]he community caretaking function must actually mean community caretaking … .”3

Questions and Issues

Judge Rivera’s dissent raises several significant issues that transcend the particular facts of the case: What functions comprise “community caretaking”? What makes a community caretaking function reasonable? Does the function extend beyond the automobile context?

Suppression and appellate courts in New York have seldom invoked the community caretaking function to uphold police conduct and, indeed, several lower courts have found that the impoundment and search of a vehicle was not a proper exercise of a community caretaking function.4 The U.S. Supreme Court had limited its application of the doctrine to inventory searches, stressing the importance of securing valuables and protecting the police from dangerous items in the vehicle.5

In Tardi, the Court of Appeals relied upon several federal circuit court decisions to determine that the search of the defendant’s car came within the exercise of a lawful community caretaking function. Circuit courts, however, are split on whether the doctrine, as articulated by the Supreme Court in Cady, also applies to warrantless searches of the home. Some circuits have declined to extend the doctrine, relying upon the distinction in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, as expressed in Cady, between automobiles and homes. Other circuits have applied the community caretaking function to uphold warrantless entries into homes.6

The Road Ahead

Going forward, lower courts will look to the New York Court of Appeals for guidance on the contours, scope and application of the community caretaking function. Ultimately, the court may need to address the fact that law enforcement goals are often entangled with community caretaking issues; a police officer may enter premises to assist a victim while, at the same time looking for evidence of a crime.7 In the past, while discussing the emergency exception to the Fourth Amendment, the court noted that the police may enter a premises for a “legitimate, benevolent purpose distinct from crime fighting” thus accommodating the “varied public service roles of local police officials. People v. Molnar, 98 N.Y.2d 328, 333 (2002). Whether the court will rely on this language to expand the scope of the community caretaking function, only time will tell.

Endnotes:

1. People v. Tardi, 28 N.Y.3d 1077 (2016), 2016 N.Y. Slip Op. 3535 (2016).

2. People v. Molnar, 98 N.Y.2d 328, 331 (2002); People v. Quackenbush, 88 N.Y.2d 534, 540 (1996).

3. Tardi, 28 N.Y.3d 1077, at *6.

4. People v. Davis, 25 Misc. 3d 634 (County Ct. Monroe Co. 2009); People v. Iverson, 22 Misc. 3d 470 (City Ct. Rochester Co. 2008); People v. Francis, 12 Misc. 3d 781 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 2006).

5. Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 369 (1976).

6. See “Breaking and Entering or Community Caretaking: A Solution to the Overbroad Expansion of the Inventory Search,” 22 Geo Mason U. Civ. Rts. L.J. 249 (2012).

7. See “Police, Community Caretaking and the Fourth Amendment,” U. Chicago Legal Forum (1998).