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Warrantless Stop Permitted When Police Reasonably Believe Emergency Aid is Needed to Protect Life, Prevent Serious Injury

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2011-0213.  State v. Dunn, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-1008.
Montgomery App. No. 23884, 2010-Ohio-6340. Judgment of the court of appeals reversed.
O'Connor, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, J., dissents.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-1008.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(March 15, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio held today that when police officers reasonably believe that there is an immediate need for their assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury, they may make a warrantless stop of a person to render aid without violating the subject’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

The court’s 6-1 decision, authored by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, reversed a ruling by the Second District Court of Appeals.

The case involved a traffic stop made by Vandalia Police Officer Robert Brazel in March 2008 after he had received a radio dispatch that there was a suicidal male driving a tow truck and that he was planning to kill himself when he arrived at 114 Helke Road in Vandalia. The dispatcher gave the name of the driver, Richard Dunn, and indicated that he had a weapon. The dispatcher also noted that the vehicle was a “big rig” tow truck displaying the name Sandy’s Towing Company. 

Less than two minutes after he heard the dispatch, Brazel saw the tow truck approximately two miles from the Helke Road address.  Brazel followed it until another officer arrived to assist him, and then the two officers signaled for Dunn to pull over. After stopping the truck, Dunn, who was crying, got out of the vehicle and put his hands up.  The officers saw that Dunn was holding a cell phone, but did not see any weapon. They handcuffed Dunn for their safety and his. Brazel testified that as he was walking Dunn to his police cruiser, Dunn stated: “[I]t’s in the glove box.”  Brazel asked him if he was referring to a gun, and Dunn said yes. The other officer checked the glove compartment and found a loaded gun. Brazel drove Dunn, who was not placed under arrest or read his Miranda rights, to a hospital in his patrol car.

In August 2009, Dunn was indicted on one count of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. Dunn filed a motion to suppress, contending that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment and that the officers had improperly interrogated him without informing him of his Miranda rights.  Therefore, Dunn asked that all evidence resulting from the stop and his statements be suppressed, including the gun found in the glove compartment.  

Brazel was the only witness called at the suppression hearing. His testimony focused on the facts surrounding the stop.  Brazel testified that he had not observed Dunn commit any traffic violations or violations of any other laws while he followed him, and admitted that the officers had not provided Dunn with Miranda warnings. The trial court overruled the motion to suppress, holding that the stop was a “legitimate response to an emergency situation,” and was therefore not an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  The court also held that Dunn’s statements and the evidence obtained from them should not be suppressed, because the police officers had not engaged in custodial interrogation but rather, Dunn’s statements were spontaneous and unsolicited.

Following the denial of his motion to suppress, Dunn pleaded no contest to the single count in the indictment.  He was sentenced to five years of supervised probation and ordered to attend counseling and pay court costs. 

Dunn subsequently appealed the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the traffic stop to the Second District Court of Appeals. The court of appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court, vacated the conviction, deemed Dunn’s plea of no contest withdrawn, and granted the motion to suppress. In a 2-1 majority opinion, the appellate panel relied on the Supreme Court of Ohio’s 1999 holding in Maumee v. Weisner that in order to defeat a motion to suppress evidence obtained through a traffic stop that was based solely on a phone tip, the state must show that police had a reasonable basis to rely on the accuracy of that tip. The court of appeals held that because the state had not presented any evidence at the suppression hearing to support the reliability of the phone tip that led to the radio dispatch and Brazel’s stop of Dunn, the state had not made the required showing that the stop was “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment,and therefore the trial court should have suppressed the evidence obtained through that stop.

The state sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Second District’s ruling.

Writing for the court in today’s decision, Justice Stratton said the Second District erred in relying on Weisner, because that case involved a warrantless traffic stop that was made for the purpose of investigating suspected criminal activity, while in this case Brazel’s warrantless stop of Dunn was based on the officer’s belief that there was an immediate need for his intervention to protect life or prevent serious injury.

Justice Stratton noted that such stops fall under a “community caretaking” or “emergency aid” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s normal standards for warrantless searches that has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973), Mincey v. Arizona (1979) and more recently in Michigan v. Fisher (2009).

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Mincey that “the Fourth Amendment does not bar police officers from making warrantless entries and searches when they reasonably believe that a person within is in need of immediate aid,” Justice Stratton wrote: “Because police officers are duty-bound to provide emergency services to those who are in danger of physical harm ... courts must frequently consider the reasonableness of an officer’s actions in situations, such as the one at bar, where a person’s life is in jeopardy.” 

Justice Stratton also pointed to State v. Applegate, a 1994 decision in which she saidthe Supreme Court of Ohio “upheld a warrantless entry into a residence by police officers who, while responding to a report of domestic violence, heard sounds coming from inside the residence indicative of violence. Although we did not use the term ‘community caretaking,’ but rather ‘exigent circumstances,’ we held that the warrantless entry was certainly justified by the officers’ reasonable belief that entering the residence was necessary to investigate an emergency threatening life and limb. ... In so holding, the court noted: ‘[T]he business of policemen and firemen is to act, not to speculate or meditate on whether the report is correct. People could well die in emergencies if police tried to act with the calm deliberation of the judicial process.’”

Justice Stratton also cited recent decisions of the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in which those courts specifically upheld as constitutional the warrantless entry by police into an apartment and into a locked bedroom based on information from third parties that a person within had indicated an intention to commit suicide. She wrote: “In this case, officers received a dispatch regarding an allegedly armed and suicidal person with an imminent plan to kill himself upon reaching a certain destination. Given that stopping a person on the street is ‘considerably less intrusive than police entry into the home itself,’ ... the officers’ effecting a traffic stop to prevent Dunn from harming himself was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Justice Stratton quoted Chief Justice Warren Burger, who once said, “‘[t]he policeman on the beat, or in the patrol car, makes more decisions and exercises broader discretion affecting the daily lives of people, every day and to a greater extent, in many respects, than a judge will ordinarily exercise in a week.’” She concluded: “The community-caretaking/emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement allows a law-enforcement officer with objectively reasonable grounds to believe that there is an immediate need for his or her assistance to protect life or prevent serious injury to effect a community-caretaking/emergency-aid stop. Thus, the officers in this case were authorized to stop Dunn based on the dispatch that Dunn was armed and planned to kill himself. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and reinstate the judgment of the trial court.”

Justice Stratton’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Robert R. Cupp and Yvette McGee Brown.

Justice Lanzinger also entered a concurring opinion, joined by Chief Justice O’Connor and Justice McGee Brown, in which she questioned the reasonableness of local prosecutors indicting and prosecuting Dunn for a firearm violation more than a year after police prevented his suicide.  She wrote, however, that  “a motion to suppress puts at issue the actions of police rather than prosecutors.  Because the officers in this case acted reasonably and responsibly, I agree that there was no Fourth Amendment violation and that the court of appeals’ judgment should be reversed.”

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote a dissenting opinion in which he disagreed with the majority’s holding that the proof of “reasonableness” required under Maumee v. Weasner applies only to police stops made for the purpose of investigating a suspected crime. Pointing out that, whatever its original purpose, the police stop of Dunn resulted in his conviction for a crime, Justice Pfeifer wrote that in order to defeat Dunn’s motion to suppress evidence from that stop, the state was required to present some evidence that it acted reasonably when it relied on a phone tip to dispatch officers to stop Dunn’s truck.

“In Weisner,”  Justice Pfeifer wrote, “this court did not set a high bar on the type of evidence needed to prove that a call to a dispatcher presents sufficient indicia of reliability to justify a traffic stop. The state ‘must present evidence of the facts known to the dispatcher in these situations.’ ... The testimony of the informant who made the call is not required. The testimony of the dispatcher is not required.  In Weisner, this court found that testimony from the arresting officer about the facts that precipitated the dispatch as relayed to him by the dispatcher was sufficient. ... Here, the state introduced no evidence regarding the facts known to the dispatcher regarding the caller.  There was no way, then, for the trial court to judge the reliability of the information the caller gave to the dispatcher.  Thus, the state failed to prove that the stop leading to Dunn’s indictment was reasonable. ... The court of appeals was therefore correct in reversing the conviction.  Accordingly, I dissent.”

Carley J. Ingram, 937.225.5757, for the state and Montgomery County prosecutor's office.

Gary C. Shaengold, 937.299.9940, for Richard Dunn.