On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Criminal Division Michael S. Kupersmith, J.
Gregory Nagurney, Deputy State’s Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.
Jessica Burke of Burke Law, P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellant.
PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund and Robinson, JJ., and Morse, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.
¶ 1. Defendant appeals from the civil suspension of his driver’s license and his conditional guilty plea to driving under the influence (DUI). He argues that the police lacked reasonable grounds to stop him, and thus, the court should have granted his motion to suppress and dismiss. We affirm.
¶ 2. The trial court made the following findings, none of which defendant challenges on appeal. Around 7 p.m. on December 28, 2013, a police officer responded to a report of a downed tree on Osgood Hill Road in the Town of Essex. The tree had broken off about fifteen feet above the ground and was partially blocking the roadway. The officer considered the tree a danger to passing motorists. He could not remove the tree himself and radioed the highway crew for help.
¶ 3. While waiting for the highway crew to arrive, the officer drove one or two miles to the south end of Osgood Hill Road to warn drivers about the blockage and to inform northbound drivers of an alternate route via Route 128. The officer parked approximately 200 yards north of the intersection of Osgood Hill Road and Route 128, facing north. When a car approached, the officer would activate his blue lights and speak to the driver. He would advise the driver to take the alternate route if the driver’s destination was north of 201 Osgood Hill Road. The officer spoke to about four drivers before encountering defendant.
¶ 4. Shortly after 8 p.m., the officer saw the headlights of defendant’s truck approaching his position, and he activated his blue lights to signal defendant to stop. Defendant stopped about 150 feet from the police cruiser. The officer motioned defendant to approach but defendant instead pulled his truck onto the right shoulder. The officer thought defendant might be confused about the situation, and he approached the truck to explain what was going on.
¶ 5. When the officer told defendant about the downed tree, defendant offered to remove the tree himself with a hatchet. The officer explained to defendant why this was impractical. Defendant continued to insist that he could remove the tree. During the conversation, the officer noticed that defendant’s eyes were bloodshot and watery. Additionally, defendant seemed confused by the officer’s explanation about taking an alternate route. The officer also observed the bottom of what appeared to be a wine or liquor bottle lying on the truck’s passenger seat. Defendant tried to hide the bottle by moving a paper bag over it. When the officer asked defendant about the bottle, defendant showed him a different bottle. Defendant denied to the officer that he had been drinking. At that point, the officer asked defendant to exit his truck and perform field-sobriety exercises, which led in turn to processing defendant for DUI.
¶ 6. Based on these facts, the court denied defendant’s motion to suppress. It concluded that, at the time of his encounter with defendant, the officer was performing a community-service function commonly expected of police officers. It found that the officer activated his lights and approached defendant’s car, not to investigate a crime, but to advise defendant of an obstruction in the road and to inform him of an alternate route. It concluded that the officer reasonably assumed that defendant was confused by the situation and further that the officer’s observations suggesting that defendant was impaired justified further investigation. Following the court’s ruling, defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to DUI. This appeal followed.
¶ 7. Defendant argues on appeal that the officer made a “stop”—a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment—and that the stop was not justified on any grounds, including the community-caretaking doctrine. Defendant maintains that, for the community-caretaking doctrine to apply, the State must show that there was an emergency, that he was in distress, or that he otherwise needed assistance. He argues that he exhibited no indicia of distress, and that he was not in any imminent danger.
¶ 8. “On appeal of a motion to suppress, we review the trial court’s legal conclusions de novo and its factual findings for clear error.” State v. Button, 2013 VT 92, ¶ 8, 195 Vt. 65, 86 A.3d 1001 (quotation omitted). Because the defendant challenges only the trial court’s legal conclusion, our review here is de novo. We hold that, assuming that a stop occurred, the officer’s actions were justified under the community-caretaking doctrine and did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The motion to suppress was therefore properly denied.
¶ 9. Generally speaking, a police officer must have “reasonable and articulable suspicion that someone is engaged in criminal activity, or is violating a motor vehicle law, before conducting an investigatory stop.” State v. Marcello, 157 Vt. 657, 657-58, 599 A.2d 357, 358 (1991) (mem.). Under some circumstances, however, a police officer without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity may “intrude on a person’s privacy to carry out ‘community caretaking’ functions to enhance public safety.” Id. at 658, 599 A.2d at 358. “The distinguishing feature of a stop and seizure under the community caretaking exception is that it is generated from a desire to aid victims rather than investigate criminals.” State v. Campbell, 173 ...