During the holiday season, the police rightfully enhance their enforcement of laws regarding operating a vehicle while impaired or intoxicated. In a recent unreported opinion, Maryland’s intermediate appellate Court addressed whether it was proper for police to approach a sleeping or unconscious driver of a running vehicle, in a case called Gary L. Smith v. State of Maryland.
The Court’s opinion indicates that Smith pulled his vehicle to a gas pump at a convenience store, and after entering the store to buy a snack was observed by the employee sitting behind the wheel of his vehicle with the engine running for over twenty minutes. Concerned for the driver’s welfare, the employee called the police, who after arriving parked behind Smith’s vehicle with emergency flashers operating. The police testified that after knocking repeatedly on the car, after two minutes Smith opened his eyes and claimed he was okay.
The officer noticed the driver’s pupils were severely constricted and his speech was slurred, that he had great difficulty retrieving his registration from the glove compartment and could not produce his driver’s license. Believing him to be under the influence of drugs, the police observed Smith having difficulty getting out of the vehicle, and he failed field sobriety tests and was arrested. At the police station testing showed he had not consumed alcohol, but Smith admitted he had taken 75 mg of methadone that morning. The trial judge denied a defense motion to suppress all evidence obtained after police approached the defendant, and he was ultimately convicted of driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol.
The appellate Court agreed with the trial judge’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence under the 4th amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. A person is “seized” where police detain an individual through a show of authority such that a reasonable person believes her or she is not free to leave. The Court agreed that Smith was “seized” the moment he awoke in the vehicle. However, it held that the “community caretaker function” of the police was properly exercised, where the police approached a person who had been sitting without moving behind the wheel of a stopped car with its engine running for thirty minutes to see if that person needed emergency aid.
Once that function ended when Smith said he was okay, the Court found that the police immediately had a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity given Smith’s appearance and actions, which became probable cause to arrest him once he could not produce a driver’s license. The Court held there was ample evidence of his impairment following the police investigation to uphold the conviction.