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Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen Applauds Decision Recognizing Police Conduct Did Not Violate Fourth Amendment When Responding To Motorist In Apparent Need Of Assistance
MADISON - The Wisconsin Court of Appeals today affirmed the Columbia County conviction of Todd Lee Kramer on a charge of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant. Adopting arguments made by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Court of Appeals held that a Columbia County deputy sheriff properly exercised his community caretaker function when he briefly detained Kramer to determine whether he needed aid or assistance. In so holding, the Court rejected the argument that evidence obtained during the encounter could not be considered by the fact-finder because the officer lacked probable cause to believe a crime had been committed before stopping Kramer.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, whose office represented the State of Wisconsin on appeal, applauded the decision. A police officer's important contributions to public safety extend beyond responding to criminal complaints, said Van Hollen. A law enforcement officer who stops to see if a motorist needs assistance is performing a valuable community caretaker function. I don't think that the Constitution places unreasonable limitations on a police officer's ability to help people in apparent need. I believe the Court of Appeals' decision in this case strikes the proper, reasonable balance between privacy and allowing the police to undertake their public safety functions.
The deputy sheriff testified in court proceedings that, after he saw Kramer's vehicle parked on the shoulder of a roadway with its four-way hazard lights on, he turned around, activated his emergency lights and pulled over to see if there was a driver in the car and to offer any assistance. As the deputy approached Kramer's vehicle, he checked for occupants. After he reached the vehicle his first words to Kramer were, "Can I help you?" When Kramer answered no, the deputy said: "Just making sure no vehicle problems." The deputy testified that, when he spoke to Kramer, he noticed Kramer's speech was slurred and he could smell an odor of intoxicants coming from within the vehicle.
Kramer argued on appeal that the deputy sheriff was not engaged in a bona fide community caretaker activity because the deputy believed that the situation may have involved criminal activity. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that [p]olice commonly act as community caretakers in situations where it remains reasonably possible that they will discover some criminal activity. Relying on well-established Wisconsin law, the Court of Appeals concluded that [t]he public has a substantial need for and interest in encouraging police to offer help when faced with situations like the officer faced here, and that interest outweighed the deputy's limited intrusion into Kramer's privacy.
The State of Wisconsin was represented in the Court of Appeals by Assistant Attorney General Stephen W. Kleinmaier. The Columbia County District Attorney's Office prosecuted the case at the circuit court level, with Assistant District Attorney Troy Dean Cross representing the State.
A copy of the Court of Appeals decision may be accessed at: