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Commonwealth v. Sargsyan: Massachusetts Clarifies Scope of Police Community Caretaking Powers

The case of Commonwealth v. Sargsyan, clarifies, and perhaps expands, the scope of police community caretaking powers in Massachusetts. 99 Mass. App. Ct. 114, 121 (2021), review denied, 487 Mass. 1102 (2021). Community caretaking function refers to a range of police activities that police are empowered to take that involve protecting an individual or the public. These are separate from investigating criminal activities. The community caretaking function can include investigating parked cars or disabled vehicles to see if the driver or any passengers are in need of medical assistance or are in some other way a threat or danger to the community. While these powers exist for the well-being of a community, they also grant police officers a large amount of power. As stated in Sargsyan: “Under the community caretaking function, an officer may, without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, approach and detain citizens for the community caretaking purposes.”

Sargsyan deals with a Newton Police Officer dispatched to check on the well-being of an occupant who was reported to be in a vehicle parked at the end of a dead end street. The vehicle was described as having been there for “quite some time” on that mid-January night. As the officer approached the vehicle, the car was running and had its lights turned on. The officer saw someone who appeared to be sleeping in the driver’s seat, later identified as the defendant. The officer knocked on the window repeatedly to wake up the defendant. When the Defendant was finally woken up, he waved away the police officer, apparently indicating that he was fine. After the defendant in the vehicle waved away the officer, the officer continued knocking and asked the defendant to lower their window. The defendant complied and the police officer requested the defendant provide him with his driver’s license so that the officer could “verify who he was and to ‘make sure the car was valid in his name.’” The officer noted that the defendant was moving slowly and “seemed very confused and his speech was slurred and slow.” When the officer proceeded to ask the defendant to get his registration, he noticed what appeared to be a knife inside the defendant’s waistband. At this point, reportedly for his own safety, the officer asked the defendant to exit the vehicle. While the defendant was exiting the vehicle, the officer observed a syringe and a baggie that appeared to contain a brown substance consistent with drugs. The officer placed the defendant in handcuffs, patted down the defendant and obtained his knife. The defendant was ultimately placed under arrest.

The defendant argued that although the police have a valid community caretaking function, “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute,” that function ended as soon as the defendant waved his hand at the officer indicating he was fine and did not need help. At that point, the defendant argued that the community caretaking function of the police officer had been fulfilled and the officer did not have any basis to order the defendant to produce a license or registration or to exit the vehicle. The Court, however, disagreed with this assessment, ultimately finding that this action was within the officer’s community caretaking powers. The Court held that the function of a community caretaker, in the context of an interaction involving a vehicle, is to determine whether a driver, such as the defendant, is capable of driving their vehicle. While fulfilling this function, officers may “take steps that are reasonable and consistent with the purpose of his inquiry… even if those steps include actions that might otherwise be constitutionally intrusive.”

Here, there were reasonable, non-drug or alcohol related causes for the defendant to be in a state where they were unsafe to drive, such as a medical emergency. As such, the officer in question had an obligation to ensure that the driver was in a safe condition to be operating the vehicle, not because the officer had a duty to assess whether the driver was under the influence of an intoxicating substance, but because drivers having a medical emergency pose a danger to the community as a whole.

Additionally, the Court held the officer’s actions here did not result in a seizure of the defendant. The Court found that “[t]he request that the defendant lower the window did not constitute a seizure.” Although a community caretaking inquiry can “ripen into a seizure,” the two are not the same and, given the specific facts here, the officer’s actions did not amount to a seizure. While the majority paints this situation as a clear example of an officer exercising their powers under their community caretaking function, the dissent agreed with the defendant and drew a line at the point where the officer asked the defendant for their license and registration. Particularly compelling to the dissent was the fact that the officer in question “did not perceive” the defendant to be a threat to the public. Under such circumstances, the dissent reasoned that the continued inquiry constituted a seizure. “The officer’s persistent conduct and words objectively communicated that the defendant was not free to ignore the officer’s inquiry and the officer would use his police power to coerce the defendant to stay.” Despite this assertion, the majority was not compelled by this reasoning.

Ultimately, Commonwealth v. Sargsyan clarifies that officers may inquire into the physical and mental fitness of a driver, and collect routine information from them such as their driver’s license and vehicle registration, as a valid function of their community caretaking powers.