N.D.Ohio: Apparently suicidal person justified entry into car to ID him

Deputy’s entry into defendant’s car was a bona fide attempt to identify a potentially suicidal person walking toward Lake Erie who’d maybe abandoned the car, wallet, and cell phone. United States v. Pritchard, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25179 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 13, 2020):

Specifically, Deputy Emch personally observed the vehicle, which was disabled and abandoned on a road that ended at a cliff dropping off to Lake Erie. He observed several personal belongings left behind in the vehicle, including a wallet and cell phone — items that individuals almost always carry on their person. Deputy Emch was told that the vehicle had been disabled for more than three hours and had been abandoned for approximately twenty minutes by an individual who was acting off, had redness in and around his eyes, and was last seen walking toward Lake Erie. His objectively reasonable belief was that he was dealing with a possibly suicidal individual.

Accordingly, when Deputy Emch entered the disabled, abandoned vehicle for the first time, his sole purpose was to identify an individual who he reasonably believed to be suicidal — he was not investigating a crime. Therefore, Deputy Emch was not, at least initially, engaged in traditional law enforcement functions and the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement was properly invoked. This is particularly true because Deputy Emch’s reasonable belief was that Pritchard’s personal safety was at risk — a risk that was reasonably perceived as imminent and in which delay to obtain a warrant could have reasonably caused harm. Furthermore, Deputy Emch’s initial intrusion into the disabled, abandoned vehicle was limited, which also weighs in favor of the conclusion that it was reasonable. See Lewis, 869 F.3d at 463 (combining the historical diminished expectation of privacy in an automobile with the limited intrusion taken by law enforcement when engaged in a community caretaker function to conclude that minimal intrusion weighs in favor of the reasonableness of a warrantless search).

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