By Marianna Bettman
The Supreme Court of Ohio recently decided an interesting case about the permissibility of the police making a stop (which later resulted in an arrest) without a warrant when they believed the driver of a truck was in need of emergency assistance. Before you say, duhhh, of course they should, there is more to it than first meets the eye. The case is State v. Dunn.
Vandalia police officer Robert Brazel received a dispatcher’s report based on a citizen’s tip that a man driving a tow truck was possibly suicidal, and had a gun in the truck. Brazel and some other officers located the truck driven by Richard Dunn and pulled it over, even though Dunn had not violated any traffic laws. A clearly-distraught Dunn told the officers there was a loaded gun in the glove compartment. The police confiscated the gun and Officer Brazel took Dunn to a hospital.
Sixteen months later the state charged Dunn with the crime of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. Dunn moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the police had no constitutional basis for making the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion, finding the stop was a legitimate response to an emergency situation. Dunn was convicted and sentenced to community control. The Court of Appeals reversed this conviction, and the Supreme Court of Ohio agreed to hear the case on an appeal by the prosecution.
It is always good to remember that the general rule in Fourth Amendment cases is that a warrant is required for searches and seizures. There are of course exceptions to that general rule, one of which is called the exigent circumstances exception. That’s when something is going on, usually of an emergency nature, that requires immediate intervention and there is no time to get a warrant. In an opinion written by Justice Evelyn Stratton, a 6-1 majority of the justices found this was such a case, under a renamed variant of the exigent circumstances exception to warrants known as the community care-taking/emergency aid exception.
Justice Stratton cited an extensive number of state and federal cases, including several from the U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing that a “community-caretaking/ emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement is necessary to allow police to respond to emergency situations where life or limb is in jeopardy.” The Court found that exception was clearly applicable in this case, where the police received a dispatch that a man with a gun in his truck was suicidal. The Court held that the traffic stop in this case was proper under this Fourth Amendment exception. The Court of Appeals decision was reversed, and Dunn’s conviction was reinstated.
Justice Stratton went one step further. She called it “ironic” that Dunn, who was suicidal at the time, was now criticizing the police for stopping him to help him, noting that if they hadn’t stopped him and he had injured or killed himself his estate might be suing the police for failing to stop and help him. “Such is the balancing act of Fourth Amendment law,” she wrote.
There is no question that the police behaved both professionally and admirably here. All the justices agreed about that. What was less admirable was the state’s decision to criminally prosecute Dunn, and 16 months after the fact at that. To what end, one might ask? This bothered Justice Judith Lanzinger sufficiently that she wrote a separate concurrence in the case joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Yvette McGee Brown. Here’s what she had to say:
“What is troublesome here is that the state indicted Dunn for the crime of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle 16 months after the police prevented his suicide. One wonders if it was reasonable for the state to prosecute Dunn under these circumstances after more than a year had passed. Nevertheless, 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.”
And finally, Justice Paul Pfeifer, who always marches to his own drummer, dissented. He saw the case totally differently, governed by a different body of law than the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. First, he found there was an investigative stop in the case (the majority did not). That triggered the question of whether the police had a reasonable basis to make this stop.
Under existing law in Ohio, a telephone tip by itself can create the reasonable suspicion necessary to support a stop, but the state must prove that the tip has “sufficient indicia of reliability.” Under the Court’s own precedent, the bar for proving reliability is quite low. Neither the informant who made the call nor the dispatcher has to testify. All that is required is the testimony of the arresting officer about the facts that brought about the dispatch. That’s really not much. But in this case, the state presented absolutely no evidence of the facts known to the dispatcher about the caller. So to Pfeifer, there was simply no way for the trial court to evaluate the reliability of the tip, which formed the entire basis for the stop and subsequent indictment. Simply put, to him, the state failed in its burden of proof in this case.
Justice Pfeifer also disagreed that this is an exigent circumstances case, by whatever name it is called. He distinguished each one of the cases relied on by Justice Stratton in adopting her community-caretaking/emergency aid exception. He pointed out that none of those cases relied solely on a telephone tip, and in each one the police officers relied to some degree on their own personal observations and investigation. But that was not the case here.
The Supreme Court of Ohio was unlikely to write a rule that the police could not make a warrantless stop for an emergency when they reasonably thought someone’s life was in danger. The warrant exception recognized here seems a reasonable one. What seems unreasonable in this case was criminally charging Dunn 16 months after the traffic stop. Count me with Justice Lanzinger.