Bridgeford v. Sorel

Decision Date27 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 20180390,20180390
Parties Bryan Andrew BRIDGEFORD, Appellee v. Thomas SOREL, Director, Department of Transportation, Appellant
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Mark A. Friese (argued) and Drew J. Hushka (on brief), Fargo, ND, for appellee.

Douglas B. Anderson, Office of Attorney General, Bismarck, ND, for appellant.

Jensen, Justice.

[¶1] The Department of Transportation ("Department") appeals from a district court judgment reversing an administrative hearing officer’s decision to suspend Bryan Andrew Bridgeford’s driving privileges for a period of 91 days. The Department asserts the district court erred in determining a law enforcement officer was not within a recognized exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment when the officer entered Bridgeford’s vehicle after he failed to respond to the officer’s actions outside the vehicle. Because we hold the community caretaker exception applied and allowed the warrantless entry into Bridgeford’s vehicle, we reverse the judgment and reinstate the Department’s suspension of Bridgeford’s driving privileges.

I

[¶2] On June 15, 2018, at 1:38 a.m., a West Fargo police officer observed Bridgeford in the driver’s seat of a running vehicle parked in a gas station parking lot. Bridgeford did not appear to be awake and was unresponsive when the officer approached the driver’s door of Bridgeford’s vehicle. In an attempt to wake Bridgeford, the officer knocked loudly on the window and raised his voice for approximately 15 seconds. Bridgeford did not respond to the attempts to wake him up from outside the vehicle. The officer then opened the vehicle’s unlocked door, grabbed Bridgeford’s shoulder, and shook Bridgeford until he woke up. The officer testified he could smell an odor of alcohol after opening the door, he observed Bridgeford had slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, and Bridgeford admitted to consuming multiple beers. After Bridgeford failed several field sobriety tests, the officer placed Bridgeford under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, actual physical control. Bridgeford submitted to a chemical breath test, which established a blood alcohol level of 0.178.

[¶3] An administrative hearing was held to consider whether Bridgeford’s driving privileges should be suspended. At the hearing, Bridgeford argued the officer’s warrantless entry into the vehicle was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and any evidence acquired subsequent to the entry into the vehicle was inadmissible. During the hearing, the officer testified he was not investigating a crime when he came into contact with Bridgeford, but was "checking on him" because Bridgeford was sleeping in his car, and the vehicle was running. The hearing officer found the officer properly entered the vehicle after Bridgeford failed to respond to attempts to get his attention from outside the vehicle. Bridgeford’s driving privileges were revoked for a period of 91 days. Bridgeford appealed to the district court. The court reversed the hearing officer’s decision after concluding the entry into Bridgeford’s vehicle was a search, that no exception to the requirement for a warrant applied, and any evidence gathered subsequent to the entry into the vehicle was required to be excluded from evidence.

II

[¶4] This Court reviews an administrative revocation of a driver’s license under N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46. Olson v. N.D. Dep't of Transp. , 2018 ND 94, ¶ 8, 909 N.W.2d 676. "In an appeal from a district court’s review of an administrative agency’s decision, we review the agency’s decision." Haynes v. Dir., Dep't of Transp. , 2014 ND 161, ¶ 6, 851 N.W.2d 172. This Court will affirm an administrative agency’s order unless:

2. The order is in violation of the constitutional rights of the appellant.
.... 5. The findings of fact made by the agency are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence.
6. The conclusions of law and order of the agency are not supported by its findings of fact.

N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46.

[¶5] Rather than making independent findings of fact or substituting our judgment for that of the agency, our review is confined to determining whether "a reasoning mind reasonably could have determined that the factual conclusions reached were proved by the weight of the evidence from the entire record." Deeth v. Dir., N.D. Dep't of Transp. , 2014 ND 232, ¶ 10, 857 N.W.2d 86. Although our review is limited to the record before the administrative agency, "the district court’s analysis is entitled to respect if its reasoning is sound." Id. "An agency’s conclusions on questions of law are subject to full review." Id. This Court "reviews constitutional rights violations under the de novo standard of review." State v. Williams , 2015 ND 103, ¶ 5, 862 N.W.2d 831.

[¶6] Bridgeford asserts the initial knocking on the window of his vehicle by the officer was a trespass and an attempt to gather information that must be considered a search subject to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Bridgeford also challenges the entry into his vehicle as an impermissible warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

III

[¶7] Bridgeford contends the officer trespassed on his property by knocking on the vehicle’s window, the knocking on the window was an attempt to gather information, and a search which required a warrant. He argues the officer’s knocking on the window was not within the community caretaking exception to the requirement for a warrant.

[¶8] "Law enforcement officers often serve as community caretakers." State v. Schneider , 2014 ND 198, ¶ 8, 855 N.W.2d 399. The United States Supreme Court described community caretaking functions as those "totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute." Id. (quoting Cady v. Dombrowski , 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973) ). Community caretaking justifies law enforcement contact with citizens without reasonable suspicion of unlawful conduct. Lapp v. N.D. Dep't of Transp. , 2001 ND 140, ¶ 14, 632 N.W.2d 419. Contact with citizens falls within the community caretaking role when an officer’s objective is to help a person in possible need of assistance. See City of Jamestown v. Jerome , 2002 ND 34, ¶ 8, 639 N.W.2d 478.

[¶9] In cases involving motor vehicles, the "law distinguishes between the approach of an already stopped vehicle and the stop of a moving one." Abernathey v. Dep't of Transp. , 2009 ND 122, ¶ 8, 768 N.W.2d 485. "When an officer approaches a parked vehicle to inquire in a conversational manner whether the occupant is okay or needs assistance, the officer is engaged in the role of a community caretaker, with actions separate from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute." State v. Leher , 2002 ND 171, ¶ 7, 653 N.W.2d 56.

[¶10] "[W]here it is obvious a citizen neither needs nor desires assistance, an officer has no community caretaking role to fill." Rist v. N.D. Dep't of Transp. , 2003 ND 113, ¶ 9, 665 N.W.2d 45. However, the appearance of an individual slumped over sleeping is not an obvious indication that a citizen does not need assistance. Id. ; see also State v. Smith , 2005 ND 21, ¶ 21, 691 N.W.2d 203 ; Lapp , 2001 ND 140, ¶¶ 14-15, 632 N.W.2d 419 ; State v. Franklin , 524 N.W.2d 603, 605 (N.D. 1994). When an officer encounters a person "whose state of consciousness prevents a conversational inquiry from occurring," the officer must decide the actions necessary to get the person to respond and may need to approach a non-responsive person "differently from a person who is conscious and able to converse with the officer." City of Mandan v. Gerhardt , 2010 ND 112, ¶ 17, 783 N.W.2d 818 (citing Rist , at ¶ 10 ). To determine if assistance is needed, it is reasonable for an officer to knock on a vehicle’s window. See Rist , at ¶ 10 ; City of Fargo v. Sivertson , 1997 ND 204, ¶ 10, 571 N.W.2d 137. By knocking, an officer is doing "no more than any private citizen might do." Florida v. Jardines , 569 U.S. 1, 8, 133 S.Ct. 1409, 185 L.Ed.2d 495 (2013) (discussing warrantless searches of homes).

[¶11] In Lapp , we held community caretaker functions supported an officer’s encounter with a driver, including knocking on the vehicle’s window. 2001 ND 140, ¶ 14, 632 N.W.2d 419. In Lapp , an officer arrived at a business parking lot to find a man slumped over the steering wheel of a running vehicle. Id. at ¶ 15. A security guard had tried to wake the man by knocking on the window for ten minutes before the officer arrived. Id. After the officer tapped on the window twice within two minutes, the man woke up. Id. At that point, the officer noticed the man’s glossy eyes and opened the door. Id. We determined "the encounter was within the officer’s role as a community caretaker. Until the officer conversed with [the man] and ascertained [he] did not need medical attention, the officer was justified in investigating [his] condition." Id. at ¶ 16.

[¶12] In Sivertson , an officer approached a vehicle stopped behind a traffic accident after noticing it was not passing the scene like other motorists. 1997 ND 204, ¶¶ 2-3, 571 N.W.2d 137. The officer testified he made contact to ensure the driver was alright. Id. at ¶ 4. Because the driver was "fixated forward" when the officer approached, the officer tapped on the window to get the driver’s attention. Id. at ¶ 10. We held the officer’s actions "were a permissible part of a legitimate caretaker encounter." Id. This Court made a similar determination in City of Grand Forks v. Zejdlik , where an officer repeatedly knocked on the driver’s window to get Zejdlik’s attention. 551 N.W.2d 772, 773 (N.D. 1996). See also Gerhardt , 2010 ND 112, ¶ 18, 783 N.W.2d 818.

[¶13] The officer’s knocking on Bridgeford’s vehicle window was within the scope of the officer’s community caretaking function. Because the officer was acting within his role as a community...

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