In this day and age of increasing law enforcement presence, police interaction with citizens is at an all-time high. This isn't always necessarily a bad thing as a strong police presence in our communities most certainly has a deterrent effect on crime.
Local law enforcement also has an expanded role, commonly referred to as "community caretaking." As the United States Supreme Court has explained, when exercising the "community caretaking" role, law enforcement is presumably interacting with the public in a way that is "totally divorced from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute." Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973). In other words, local law enforcement is not just designed to detect and apprehend criminals they are also responsible for providing the community at large with assistance when it may be needed.
There are three recognized types of "community caretaking" activities engaged in by law enforcement: 1) rendering emergency aid; 2) automobile impound/inventory; and 3) acting as a public servant. The most common two are the first and third; "emergency aid" and "public servant."
The "emergency aid" activity means what it says. If an officer has specific information leading him to believe that a person is in need of emergency assistance, the officer may stop that individual in order to render that aid. This most often times arises in the context of individual's suffering from medical problems while driving. Obviously, if there are objective facts pointing to a person being in need of legitimate emergency assistance we want to encourage officers to render that aid.
The "public servant" activity is a little more all-encompassing and involves situations were a citizen is in need of some other type of help. For example; a vehicle is on the side of the road with a flat tire. If a police officer were to just drive by us when we are broken down on the side of the road with a flat tire, we would complain that the officer isn't doing his job which is often described as to "protect and to serve." The conflict however, arises when a police officer "seizes" a person to execute one of those "community caretaking" functions.
Not all police interactions with citizens qualify as a "seizure" though. Police will routinely engage in "consensual encounters" where the person is free to go about his/her business if they so desire. During these encounters, any evidence obtained or observations made by the police officer, may be used against the individual. However, if the officer engages in conduct that turns the "consensual encounter" into a "seizure," such as telling the person not to leave, there must be a legal basis for him to do so, i.e., suspicion of criminal activity.
A "seizure" occurs when law enforcement, through a show of authority, restrains a person of their freedom to move around and go about their business. When a "seizure" occurs, the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1 Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution are invoked. Law enforcement may not "seize" an individual without a valid legal basis because doing so violates the Constitution and all evidence obtained as a result of the police action may be suppressed or thrown out of court.
More and more, we are seeing law enforcement attempting to justify their "seizure" of an individual under the "public servant" function of the "community caretaking" exception to the Fourth Amendment. In these situations, the officers admit that the person did not violate any traffic laws nor did they have a reason to believe the citizen was engaged in criminal activity. However, the officer claims that he felt it necessary to stop the person to "see if everything was alright."
The Constitution has never permitted a "stop and see" approach to law enforcement. It has always required a specific and articulable basis to believe the person has done something wrong or is genuinely in need of assistance. However, some district courts have been convinced by prosecutors to rule that "stop and see" vehicle stops qualify under the "public servant" function of the "community caretaking" exception to the warrant requirement.
The "public servant" function really has not been addressed or discussed in any great detail by Iowa Appellate Courts. What is and is not permitted under this function is far from clear. However, many States have already said that police officers may not "seize" a person in order to engage in the "public servant" function because no legitimate public interest is served in those situations and it would open it up for abuse through "bogus" stops under the guise of "just trying to help." Recently, the attorneys at GRL Law raised the issue before the Iowa Supreme Court.
In State v. Kurth, the defendant was pulled over in a parking lot of a Perkin's restaurant after running over debris that had been left in the roadway. The officer admitted that Mr. Kurth did not violate any traffic laws and that he did not have a basis to believe he was engaged in criminal activity at the time. However, the prosecutor argued and the district court agreed that the officer was acting as a "public servant" in checking on Mr. Kurth when he stopped the vehicle.
The fatal flaw to the justification of these types of stops is that there simply is no legitimate societal interest that is furthered by officers "seizing" a motorist in order to render assistance. In each and every case, the public interest can be just as well served by the officers engaging in a "consensual encounter" without needing to actually "seize" the individual. Nothing would prevent an officer from merely walking up to the person and asking if they need help. There is no restraint of their freedom at that point and thus, no concern with a potential violation of the 4th Amendment. If the person does not need help they can go on about their business. If they want help, then they can accept the officer's generous offer of assistance at that point in time. There simply is no legitimate public interest that is served by restraining someone of their freedom in order to "help" that person out. If this were the case, then every motorist who pulls over to the side of the road in order to send or receive a text message (which is the law) would be subject to being pulled over by law enforcement just to see if they are ok.
Ultimately, this question will finally be answered by the Iowa Supreme Court. The Kurth case is scheduled to be argued on April 4th at 9:00. A decision will be issued by the Iowa Supreme Court in the months following.