Stopping to See if a Driver Needs Assistance Does Not Give a Police Officer the Right to Search Your Vehicle

In Commonwealth v. Livingstone, our Supreme Court held that a driver stopped by the side of the road was not subject to a warrantless search of her vehicle when the only purpose of the investigating officer’s stop was to see if she needed some assistance.

In this case, the officer, in a marked vehicle, came across an individual sitting in the driver’s seat of her car entering an address into the vehicle’s navigation system. He activated his emergency lights and pulled along side her vehicle.

The encounter evolved into an investigation, with the driver subjected to field sobriety tests and an arrest for driving under the influence. At trial, she filed a motion to suppress evidence based on the illegal nature of the stop and search. Her motion was denied by the trial court. Relying on the public service exception to the warrant requirement, the trial court’s ruling was upheld by the Superior Court.

In its review of the facts surrounding the case, the Supreme Court found no reason to doubt the investigating officer’s testimony that he pulled alongside Ms. Livingstone’s vehicle simply to see to see whether she needed assistance. Those facts established that she did not. Indeed, the investigating officer conceded that he had not received a report of a motorist in need of assistance, and did not observe anything that outwardly suggested a problem with Ms. Livingstone’s vehicle. The Court also noted that the weather was not inclement. Ms. Livingstone, who was inside her vehicle, did not have her hazard lights on.

When an officer is unable to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts which would reasonably suggest that assistance was needed, he/she cannot rely on the public servant exception to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine to justify the detention and search of a citizen and his/her vehicle.

For purposes of a motion to suppress evidence, the Court concluded that a reasonable person in Ms. Livingstone’s position would not feel free to leave after the investigating officer pulled his patrol car, with its emergency lights activated, alongside her vehicle. Therefore, she was seized and subject to an investigative detention. Under these circumstances, the trooper ‘s seizure of Ms. Livingstone was not justified under the public servant exception. The evidence obtained as a result of this detention of Ms. Livingstone should have been suppressed by the trial court.

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