State v. Smathers, 232 N.C. App. 120 (Jan. 21, 2014)

In a case where the State conceded that the officer had neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to seize the defendant, the court decided an issue of first impression and held that the officer’s seizure of the defendant was justified by the “community caretaking” doctrine. The officer stopped the defendant to see if she and her vehicle were “okay” after he saw her hit an animal on a roadway. Her driving did not give rise to any suspicion of impairment. During the stop the officer determined the defendant was impaired and she was arrested for DWI. The court noted that in adopting the community caretaking exception, “we must apply a test that strikes a proper balance between the public’s interest in having officers help citizens when needed and the individual’s interest in being free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” It went on adopt the following test for application of the doctrine:

[T]he State has the burden of proving that: (1) a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred; (2) if so, that under the totality of the circumstances an objectively reasonable basis for a community caretaking function is shown; and (3) if so, that the public need or interest outweighs the intrusion upon the privacy of the individual.

After further fleshing out the test, the court applied it and found that the stop at issue fell within the community caretaking exception.