“Hunched Over” Passenger Not Enough Distress to Invoke the Community Caretaking Exception

By November 6, 2015Criminal Defense, DWI

Community Caretaking Fort WorthWhile conducting a preventative patrol on the Fourth of July in 2013, a Fort Worth police officer stopped at a red light beside Cameron Byram’s vehicle. Both vehicles had the windows rolled down. The officer testified at trial that he noticed a female passenger in Byram’s car “hunched over…[and that he]…didn’t see any movement at all [from] the female.” The officer smelled alcohol coming from Byram’s car, and felt Byram was “not attending to the female passenger.” The officer shouted over to Byram, asking if she was alright, but Byram faced forward and drove away when the light turned green. Believing the female passenger needed medical attention, coupled with Byram’s actions “as an attempt to avoid contact with the police,” the officer stopped Byram’s car to conduct traffic stop. The officer checked on the passenger and called for medical attention, which she later refused. Next, the officer investigated and arrested Byram for driving while intoxicated (DWI). The officer testified that Byram had not committed a traffic offense, nor were there any technical violations on Byram’s car—he only stopped the car to perform a safety check.

Byram v. State (2nd Court of Appeals – Fort Worth, 2015)

***UPDATE – This case was REVERSED by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2017. See opinion.

After his motion to suppress the evidence for the DWI charge was denied, Byram entered a guilty plea. The trial court assessed punishment at ninety days in jail and a $750 fine, but suspended the sentence, placing him on community supervision for eighteen months. Byram appealed.

The issue before the Fort Worth Court of Appeals is whether the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment applies to the facts of the case, or, whether the police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Byram.

The Fourth Amendment provides a safeguard against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV; Wiede v. State, 214 S.W.3d 17, 24 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). A warrantless arrest is considered unreasonable unless it fits into an exception, such as the community caretaking exception. Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 113 S. Ct. 2130, 2135 (1993); Torres, 182 S.W.3d at 901. A search or seizure “is not unreasonable” when community caretaking is the goal, however, the exception is “narrowly applied” in the “most unusual of circumstances.” Wright, 7 S.W.3d at 152.

“Courts consider four non-exclusive factors in determining whether the officer’s belief that the defendant needed help was reasonable: (1) the nature and level of the distress exhibited by the individual; (2) the location of the individual; (3) whether or not the individual was alone or had access to assistance other than that offered by the officer; and (4) to what extent the individual, if not assisted, presented a danger to himself or others.” Corbin v. State, 85 S.W.3d 272, 277 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002).

First, the Court of Appeals concludes that the passenger did not exhibit distress. “The passenger did not appear to be in any great distress, she was located in a busy area of town where there were nearby hospitals, she was not alone [in the car], she was in public, and she did not appear to be a danger to herself or others.” Further, the Court of Appeals states, “We…cannot conclude that the…community caretaking exception, when applied to a hunched over passenger…indicates that the passenger presented a danger to herself or others.”

Second, the Court of Appeals determines that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to be able to perform a safety check. “[While] we do not question the good faith of [the officer’s] subjective suspicion that Byram might have been involved in an alcohol-based offense…so long as consumption of alcohol is not illegal…permitting…investigation of persons for alcohol-based offenses solely on whether the odor of alcohol is present invites unwarranted police intrusions.” Byram’s traffic stop violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Justice Sue Walker dissents, stating the passenger was exhibiting signs of distress because she “was not moving and appeared unconscious.” The passenger was also in a vehicle driven by a man “who appeared unconcerned about her well-being.” The passenger’s access to assistance was doubtful because Byram did not respond to the police officer’s question about her condition. Lastly, the passenger was a danger to herself because she appeared unresponsive and unable to ask for help. “Thus, all four factors…support the reasonableness of the officer’s belief that she needed assistance.”

Law enforcement officers must abide by local, state and federal procedural and substantive laws when conducting traffic stops and arrests. If you or a loved one is facing DWI charges or traffic violations, please contact our office today for a free consultation at (817) 993-9249.