D.D.C.: Community caretaking function doesn’t apply well to seizures; seizure and frisk suppressed

Officers responded to a drive-by shooting allegedly picked up by ScatterShot. Officers grabbed defendant’s arm ostensibly to see if he’d been shot, and it was readily apparent that he had not been, and he denied it. The community caretaking function is primarily for searches, not really seizures. The government’s authorities don’t support its position. United States v. Johnson, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16858 (D. D.C. Feb. 4, 2019):

In light of these general principles, courts do not typically contemplate searches of individuals being justified by the community caretaking exception; the cases speak primarily of seizures. See, e.g., Vargas, 783 F.3d at 971-72; Samuelson v. City of New Ulm, 455 F.3d 871, 877 (8th Cir. 2006); King, 990 F.2d at 1560. And the cases that arguably go beyond seizures are easily distinguishable from this case. The government, for example, relies on Vauss v. United States, 370 F.2d 250, 125 U.S. App. D.C. 228 (D.C. Cir. 1966) (per curiam), but that case involved a defendant who was found unconscious on a public street. Id. at 251. After police officers unsuccessfully attempted to rouse the man, they called an ambulance and then searched him in the hopes of finding a form of identification that would help the officers “prepare a report for the hospital.” Id. The search instead uncovered drugs, though, and when the defendant later sought to suppress the drug evidence, the D.C. Circuit refused. The court concluded that “[a] search of one found in an unconscious condition is both legally permissible and highly necessary” because “[t]here is a positive need to see if the person is carrying some indication of a medical history, the rapid discovery of which may save his life.” Id. at 252. At the risk of stating the obvious, here, Johnson was not unconscious, so the risk that the officers were addressing was not nearly as serious as that at issue in Vauss. And as the Court has already said, everything the officers initially learned from Johnson should have led them to become less concerned about his wellbeing, whereas in Vauss, the officers surely would have become more concerned after they were unable to awaken the defendant. Thus, it was reasonable in Vauss for the officers to ramp up the encounter and perform a limited search. Here, it was not.

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