D.S.D.: Community caretaking function permitted search of unconscious person’s bag for source of his condition

Police responding to a medical emergency found defendant unconscious in his bathroom with a belt tourniquet at his arm and a brown liquid in a syringe. That was not a sign of diabetes shock. It was reasonable under Eighth Circuit precedent for the officer to make a limited search of the immediate area and defendant’s bag to determine the source of his unconsciousness. United States v. Kempf, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179232 (D. S.D. Oct. 18, 2018):

The court, like Kempf, is not aware of any case explicitly holding that the community caretaker exception applies to a warrantless search of a closed container or personal effect found within a residence. But Eighth Circuit precedent about the community caretaker exception consistently assesses an officer’s response to an emergency under a reasonableness standard. SeeHarris, 747 F.3d at 1019 (“Our inquiry in this case is guided by the Fourth Amendment’s central requirement, reasonableness.”). Thus, the court examines whether Officer MacFarlane had a reasonable belief that searching inside Kempf’s bag would aid in his response to Kempf’s medical emergency.

Based on the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning in Harris, Smith, and Quezada, the court finds that Officer MacFarlane’s noninvestigatory search of Kempf’s black bag while quickly looking for signs of what caused Kempf’s medical emergency was reasonable under the circumstances. See Smith, 820 F.3d at 360-61 (discussing the “specific, articulable facts known to the officers” during their community caretaker response); Harris, 747 F.3d at 1018-19 (concluding that the officers’ actions in response to an emergency were reasonable and outweighed the individual’s right to be free from government intrusion); Quezada, 448 F.3d at 1008 (finding that an officer’s warrantless entry into a home was reasonable under the community caretaker exception when the officer saw lights on and a television playing but received no response after yelling several times). Kempf was lying unresponsive on the bathroom floor and Ms. Ball told Officer MacFarlane that Kempf was diabetic. While Officer MacFarlane’s testimony is somewhat inconsistent about when he decided to look in Kempf’s bag, his entire response to Kempf’s medical episode happened very quickly.

Officer MacFarlane’s actions were reasonable because Officer MacFarlane opened Kempf’s bag to find some explanation of Kempf’s medical condition and to provide emergency aid to Kempf. Even though Officer MacFarlane testified that he did not look in Kempf’s bag until after the paramedics already began transporting Kempf to the ambulance, Officer MacFarlane was still responding to Kempf’s medical emergency when he opened the bag. After observing the syringe on the floor, the belt looped into a tourniquet, and the used cotton ball and silver spoon in the bag, Officer MacFarlane followed the paramedics outside and asked if they had administered Narcan yet, thus showing that he was still engaged in a community caretaking function.

Officer MacFarlane’s search also did not exceed the scope of his role as a community caretaker. See Smith, 820 F.3d at 362 (stating that the scope of an officer’s encounter under the community caretaker exception “was carefully tailored to satisfy the purpose.”). He did not rummage through multiple drawers and cabinets, did not wait an extended period of time before opening Kempf’s bag, and did not search for possible explanations of Kempf’s medical emergency anywhere outside the bathroom where Kempf was lying unresponsive. Thus, the court concludes that it is appropriate to apply the community caretaker exception to Officer MacFarlane’s limited search of Kempf’s bag under the circumstances here. Kempf’s objection to the magistrate judge’s recommendation is overruled.

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