Community Caretaking Doctrine Upheld

The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a ruling that now allows law enforcement to make arrests in conjunction with evidence obtained as part of their role in Community Caretaking.  This ruling came about because of two DUI cases in Tennessee that involved impaired drivers who were arrested because of evidence found when officers were checking on their well-being.

In the first, Officer Phyllis Bige, of the Etowah Police Department arrested John D. Moats for DUI on December 7, 2008.

Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals
Circuit Court for McMinn County
No. 09048 Carroll L. Ross, Judge
No. E2010-02013-SC-R11-CD – Filed March 22, 2013

At approximately 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 2008, Officer Phyllis Bige of the Etowah Police Department observed an individual, later identified as James David Moats (the“Defendant”), sitting in the driver’s seat of a pick-up truck in the parking lot of a BI-LO Grocery. Citizens National Bank, located next door to the grocery, was closed at the time,but a BP gas station across the parking lot was open. “No loitering” signs had been posted at the location, and, previously, a business owner had asked the police to patrol the area more frequently after business hours because of suspected illegal drug activity. As Officer Bige drove by in her patrol car, she noticed that the headlights of the truck were turned on but the engine was not engaged. Officer Bige, who described what she had seen as “out of the ordinary,” continued on patrol; however, when she returned to the parking lot some five minutes later and the truck was in the same position, she parked her patrol car behind the truck, activated her blue lights, and called in the license plate number.

As Officer Bige walked toward the truck, she noticed that the window on the driver’s side was rolled down. She asked the Defendant “if he was okay,” and he replied, “I’m fine.” At that point, Officer Bige saw an open beer can in a cup holder on the dash of the truck and keys in the ignition. When she asked why he was parked there, the Defendant replied that he was “just there” and admitted that he had been drinking “a few beers.” According to the
officer, the Defendant appeared to be “disoriented, very slow to speak, very sleepy acting,” and he was unable to produce either identification or registration for the truck. When Officer Bige’s sergeant arrived at the scene, the Defendant struggled to get out of his vehicle and then performed poorly on three field sobriety tests. After being arrested for driving under the influence, the Defendant consented to a test for blood alcohol content, which registered 0.19%.


Moats was convicted of DUI and appealed.  The state statute indicated that officers were only to turn on their blue lights if they had intent for a seizure.  In the Moats case, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction because it was determined that the officer did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion that the defendant had either committed a criminal offense or was about to do so and that the circumstances of the arrest did not fall under the officer’s community caretaking role.

In the second case, Sgt. Daniel Trivette, of the White County Sheriff’s Department arrested Kenneth McCormick for DUI.


Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals
Criminal Court for White County
No. CR5719 David A. Patterson, Judge
No. M2013-02189-SC-R11-CD – Filed May 10, 2016

At approximately 2:45 a.m. on April 8, 2012, Sergeant Daniel Trivette (“Sgt. Trivette”) of the White County Sheriff?s Department was on routine patrol on Highway 111 when he saw a tan Chevrolet Tahoe that, “from where [he] was traveling, appeared to be sitting in the roadway in front of the Save-A-Lot Food Store on Knowles Drive.” Sgt. Trivette “pulled onto Knowles Drive, pulled behind the vehicle, [and] realized it was actually sitting in the entrance to the parking lot” of the Save-A-Lot, blocking about 75% of the entrance. The shopping center was closed. The back left wheel and rear portion of the parked vehicle were “partially in the roadway,” while the “other three wheels w[ere] at an angle.” Sgt. Trivette parked his patrol car “in the roadway” behind the vehicle and activated the patrol car’s “back blue lights” for “safety” reasons, specifically to prevent his vehicle or the parked vehicle from being rear ended during the stop.

Sgt. Trivette then exited his patrol car “to do a welfare check on the subject in the vehicle.” The headlights of the vehicle were on and its engine was running. Sgt. Trivette walked up to the driver’s side door of the vehicle and observed a man, later identified as the defendant, “slumped over the wheel.” Sgt. Trivette attempted to rouse the defendant by “tapping on the window,” but “loud music” was blaring from inside the vehicle. The defendant did not respond. Sgt. Trivette then opened the door and “detected a strong odor of alcoholic beverage on [the defendant’s] breath and person.” Sgt. Trivette noticed “ McDonald’s food in [the defendant’s] lap,” “an open beer bottle” in the center console, and “some sort of sauce all over [the defendant’s] face,” as if “he had been eating.” Sgt. Trivette tried to wake the defendant for about a minute before the defendant finally responded. After making sure the defendant was “okay,” Sgt. Trivette turned down the radio, turned off the engine, and asked the defendant to exit the vehicle. The defendant complied, and Sgt. Trivette removed the keys from the ignition and placed them in the driver’s seat.

By the time the defendant exited the vehicle, a White County Sheriff’s deputy, Scott O’Dell (“Deputy O’Dell”), had arrived at the scene in response to Sgt. Trivette’s call for assistance with a welfare check. Both officers described the defendant upon exiting his vehicle as “very unsteady on his feet,” “swaying,” “stumbling,” and having “difficulty standing still.” The defendant stated that he had consumed three to four beers. When Sgt. Trivette asked the defendant if he thought he should be driving, the defendant responded, “Not necessarily.” Sgt. Trivette then administered four field sobriety tests, and Sgt. Trivette and Deputy O’Dell testified about the defendant’s performance on these tests. Additionally, a video recording of the defendant performing the tests was admitted into evidence.

After the defendant failed three of the four field sobriety tests, Sgt. Trivette asked the defendant how much alcohol he had consumed and when he had begun drinking that evening. The defendant replied that he had begun drinking at approximately 7:00 p.m. and had consumed five or six beers. When Sgt. Trivette asked the defendant for the current time, the defendant responded 11:30 p.m., when, according to Sgt. Trivette, it was actually 3:00 a.m. Sgt. Trivette then arrested the defendant for DUI.

After Sgt. Trivette advised the defendant of the implied consent law, the defendant refused a blood test. While the defendant was in the back seat of the police car, another vehicle attempted to enter the shopping center parking lot through the entrance the defendant’s vehicle was obstructing. When Sgt. Trivette asked the defendant if he knew the person driving the vehicle, the defendant responded, “No, I sure don’t. I’m sorry. I’ve had too much to drink.” During the ensuing inventory search of the defendant’s vehicle, Sgt. Trivette found four unopened, cold beers in the back seat and a bottle containing the defendant’s prescription Xanax.

The trial court submitted the criminal charge to the jury, which convicted the defendant of first offense DUI. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-401 (2012).*

*This statute provides:
It is unlawful for any person to drive or to be in physical control of any automobile or other motor driven vehicle on any of the public roads and highways of the state, or on any streets or alleys, or while on the premises of any shopping center, trailer park or any apartment house complex, or any other premises that is generally frequented by the public at large, while:
(1) Under the influence of any intoxicant, marijuana, controlled substance, controlled substance analogue, drug, substance affecting the central nervous system or combination thereof that impairs the driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle by depriving the driver of the clearness of mind and control of oneself which the driver would otherwise possess; or
(2) The alcohol concentration in the person’s blood or breath is eight-hundredths of one percent (0.08 %) or more.

After McCormick was convicted of DUI, he appealed, and this month, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld his conviction by overruling the State V Moats decision.  The Court stated that the Moats case was “wrongly decided” and that an officer’s role of community caretaking is an exception to the federal and state constitutional warrant requirements.  Thus, Sgt. Trivette was within the law (the person was in need of assistance and the officer behaved in a reasonably restrained manner to meet the community need) when he stopped for a welfare check on Kenneth McCormick and then arrested him for DUI after he discovered that the defendant was impaired.

The Court established five factors to consider when determining if an officer acted as a community caretaker:
1.  The nature and level of distress exhibited by the citizen
2.  the location
3.  the time
4.  the accessibility of other assistance
5.  the risk of danger if the officer provides no assistance.

The Herald Citizen reported that Bryant Dunaway, 13th Judicial District Attorney General, said, “Officers can now act to render aid and check on the public welfare while still being able to act to enforce our criminal laws should that circumstance exist.”

MADD Tennessee is glad to see the Supreme Court recognize the importance of an officer’s role as community caretaker.  We support law enforcement in their efforts, not only to keep Tennessee roadways safe, but also to protect and serve the people of our state.

Additional coverage and/or sources:

TNDUI Guy, March 26, 2013

Some say TN Supreme Court ruling violates 4th Amendment, WSMV Channel 4, May 16, 2016

State of Tennessee v. Kenneth McCormick,

State of Tennessee v. James David Moats,

TNDUI Guy, March 10, 2016