Media Center

Wisconsin Court Of Appeals Reverses Circuit Court Suppression And Dismissal Orders In Waukesha County "Community Caretaker" Case

 

"Police officers perform a vital community caretaker function when they check on the welfare of a driver pulled off alongside the road," says Van Hollen.  "My office will vigorously defend good law enforcement practices throughout the state."

 

MADISON - In a pretrial appeal brought by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held today that a Village of Menomonee Falls police officer performed a proper "community caretaker" function when he approached a parked vehicle to determine if the driver needed assistance.  While speaking with the driver, Lance F. Truax, the officer noted that Truax appeared intoxicated.  Further investigation led to charges of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated and operating with a prohibited blood alcohol concentration, both as fifth or subsequent offenses, and operating after revocation.

 

A Waukesha County judge granted Truax's motion to suppress evidence and to dismiss the charges, concluding that the officer lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop and speak with Truax.  Today's Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision reverses the circuit court's suppression and dismissal orders and reinstates the charges.

 

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen applauded the decision.  "Police officers perform a vital community caretaker function when they check on the welfare of a driver pulled off alongside the road," said Van Hollen.  "My office will vigorously defend good law enforcement practices like these throughout the state."

 

According to facts developed in pretrial proceedings, Officer Eric Hansen was on routine patrol when Truax's car passed him in the opposite direction.  As Truax passed him, Hansen saw Truax's car immediately and abruptly pull off onto the right-hand shoulder of the road.  Concerned that Truax may have been ill or may have suffered a mechanical problem, Hansen turned his car around, parked behind Truax's car, activated his emergency lights and spoke with Truax.  Truax told Hansen he was looking for his girlfriend.  Hansen noted that Truax appeared intoxicated.

 

Relying on a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decisionState v. Kramerthe Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that Hansen had an objectively reasonable basis for stopping and speaking with Truax.  The court also concluded that "the public has a substantial interest in police offering assistance to motorists who may need assistance, especially after dark and in less urban areas."  Given this justification, the court concluded that Hansen's observations and other evidence of possible drunk driving were admissible against Truax.

 

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals' decision and opinion in State v. Lance F. Truax appear on the court's website:
http://www.wicourts.gov/ca/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=36098

 

Truax's case now returns to Waukesha County circuit court for reinstatement of the criminal complaint and further proceedings.  Truax enjoys a presumption of innocence in that court.  The complaint filed in this case contains allegations that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

 

The Waukesha County District Attorney's Office represents the State in Waukesha County circuit court.  Assistant Attorney General Katherine Desmond Lloyd represented the State in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.