Defending Law Enforcement's Discrection in Community Caretaking
State v. Asboth
Police officers daily confront a variety of situations, some of which implicate their role as law-enforcers and others which emphasize their role as caretakers of the community. An officer’s role as a community caretaker often arises unexpectedly in response to a sudden traffic obstruction or a citizen in need of assistance. Sometimes, in the course of responding as community caretakers to these unexpected situations, officers discover evidence of crimes. Wisconsin law has long recognized a "community caretaker doctrine" that governs such cases and allows such evidence to be introduced if it was discovered during a reasonable exercise of community-caretaker discretion.
Police arrested Kenneth Asboth at a private storage unit in connection with an armed robbery. Asboth's vehicle remained at the scene, blocking the private storage units of several customers. Consistent with their duty as community caretakers, police towed the vehicle to ensure that it neither obstructed private property nor interfered with the safe movement of vehicles through the area. As part of the normal impoundment process and to guard against liability, they conducted an inventory search of the vehicle's contents. In doing so, the officers found a gun resembling the gun used in the armed robbery.
Asboth sought to suppress the gun at trial, alleging that the inventory search violated the Fourth Amendment.and further asserting that every police impoundment should be subject to rigid procedures, despite the fact that police activity often arises fortuitously. The State argued that the decision to tow an abandoned vehicle blocking private property was both reasonable in itself and conducted pursuant to departmental policy. The State also maintained that the Fourth Amendment requires courts to assess the totality of the circumstances to determine if a search was reasonable. Here, adherence to departmental policy was just one of many factors indicating that this impoundment was reasonable.
Status: The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with the arguments made by the Solicitor General's office that the impoundment here was reasonable, and that there needn't be “standardized criteria” imposed upon law enforcement to reasonably impound a vehicle under the community caretaker doctrine. Asboth has petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for certiorari, which is still pending.