The community caretaking exception (also known as the emergency exception) allows police officers to conduct a warrantless search in order to provide emergency medical aid or to attempt to prevent an explosion, a fire, or some other destructive accident. If a police officer properly enters a private location to offer emergency aid and sees contraband or evidence of a crime in plain view, he can seize the items and they can be offered in court as evidence. The existence of probable cause is not a prerequisite because officers acting under the community caretaking exception are not investigating criminal activity.
An entry into a private location will be upheld under the community caretaking exception if: (1) there were reasonable grounds for the police to believe an emergency existed; and (2) the police response to the potential emergency was reasonable. The Commonwealth bears the burden of proving the police officers’ actions were objectively reasonable. There are some types of emergencies that are self-evident and obviously require the assistance of public officials. For example, if a house is on fire, it is reasonable to expect fire and police officials to respond and enter. If there is an incident involving a home (such as a car crashing into a house, or a construction accident that injures a worker), police officers have the duty to provide assistance. Police officers often enter homes to check on the health and safety of residents (particularly elderly residents) at the request of the residents’ family members.
The community caretaking function is also frequently on display on Massachusetts roadways. The police have the responsibility to ensure that drivers are not in need of emergency assistance. Accordingly, if a car is stopped in a breakdown lane on a highway, or parked in a parking lot during odd hours, a police officer can approach the car and engage the driver in conversation to rule out the presence of an emergency. Courts have repeatedly ruled these types of interactions between police officers and drivers do not qualify as “seizures” as long as the officer objectively was not in the process of investigating a crime. Any observations made by the police officer during these encounters are admissible in court, and they could justify the officer in ordering the driver to exit the vehicle. Many times, defendants who are charged with operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs get into trouble when they fall asleep at the wheel. Officers initially approach their vehicles pursuant to the community caretaking exception and it’s only after they have contact with the drivers that they realize a follow-up OUI investigation may be necessary.
While community caretaking actions cannot be investigatory in nature, the exception may apply even when a police officer subjectively believes the subject of his inquiry is committing a crime. For example, if a police officer approaches a car that is stopped on the side of the road, and the driver matches the description of a suspect who recently robbed a nearby bank, the officer might believe the driver committed the robbery. However, as long as the cop has an objective non-investigatory reason for approaching the vehicle (in this case, to check on a driver who is stopped on the side of the road), his conduct will constitute a community caretaking function.