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What is a "welfare check" or the "community caretaking doctrine"

A law enforcement officer generally cannot search or seize you without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime has taken place, or is about to take place. What this means is that a cop cannot demand that you stop and talk to him or her. He or she must have particular facts that would lead a reasonable officer to conclude that a crime has taken place or is about to take place, before he can force you to stop and talk. This also applies to your car. A police officer cannot just stop your car because you or the passengers of your car look suspicious.

If a police officer stops you and illegally detains you, everything found as a result of the illegal detainment and arrest can be subject to suppression in a motion to suppress hearing. In other words, all evidence can be thrown out of court.

There is an exception to this rule, however. It is commonly referred to as the "welfare check" or "community caretaking doctrine." The thinking here is that a law enforcement officer does not just fight crime, he or she also has a duty to act as a caretaker of the community. For instance, if an officer sees a person stumbling around and extremely intoxicated in public, it can be said that the officer has a duty to protect the person (and possibly the community) from danger.

When a law enforcement officer is acting in a caretaking capacity, normal constitutional protections related to search and seizure do not necessarily apply (or they do not apply in the same manner). For instance, the officer can arguably approach the intoxicated person and temporarily detain him or her (for purposes of protecting the person) when there is no suspicion of criminality. However, the law enforcement officer can only lawfully hold the person to determine if there is in fact a medical emergency and then deal with it. In other words this should only be a temporary detainment.

Sometimes, when an officer is acting in "welfare check mode" the officer will find evidence of a crime. It is possible for the officer to then switch into law enforcement mode and investigate and make an arrest. This is commonly seen where a police officer will see a person passed out behind the wheel, wake the person up, and then notice a smell of alcohol and begin a DUI investigation.

Criminal law can be very complicated. Please do not try to analyze or figure out your case alone. Our attorneys have spent countless hours learning criminal and constitutional law and will gladly sit down with you and discuss your case. Call (941) 444-5128 to schedule a free consultation.

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