State v. Coffman

Decision Date22 June 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-1720,16-1720
Citation914 N.W.2d 240
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Terry Lee COFFMAN, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Matthew T. Lindholm of Gourley, Rehkemper, & Lindholm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik and Zachary Miller, Assistant Attorneys General, Jessica Reynolds, County Attorney, and Shean Fletchall, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.


This case requires us to decide whether an officer was justified in pulling behind a vehicle and activating his emergency lights when the vehicle was stopped by the side of a highway after 1:00 a.m. with its brake lights engaged. We conclude the officer’s actions were justified under the "community caretaking function" exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. For this reason, we affirm the conviction for operating while intoxicated that resulted from this roadside encounter.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

In the early hours of May 22, 2016, Story County Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Hochberger was on assigned patrol in the southern part of the county. When he was outside Slater at approximately 1:08 a.m., he spotted a vehicle pulled over on the side of the highway with its brake lights on. Deputy Hochberger turned on his flashing red and blue lights, and he pulled to a stop behind the parked vehicle. Deputy Hochberger later testified his objective in making this kind of stop is to "check on the welfare of the occupants or see if they need any assistance, if they have vehicle problems or medical problems, or if they’re just talking on their phone." Deputy Hochberger also explained why he activated his flashers:

First reason is it alerts traffic approaching any other direction that I am stopped on the side of the roadway and that there is potentially a hazard there; and number two is to alert the driver or subjects of the vehicle that it’s just not a stranger pulling up behind them. It is a law enforcement officer stopping to check on them.

Deputy Hochberger did not run the vehicle’s license plate through dispatch before exiting his vehicle. Instead, he immediately approached the driver’s side window on foot to speak with the driver. While passing the rear of the vehicle, the deputy noticed a registration violation because the license plate bracket covered the sticker and it was not possible to tell whether the registration was current.

Upon reaching the driver’s window, Deputy Hochberger immediately detected a strong odor of alcoholic beverage and noticed the driver’s red and watery eyes. Deputy Hochberger’s initial questions were directed at determining if there was an emergency or if the occupants needed assistance. He asked, "Hi guys, everything okay tonight?"

When the driver, Terry Coffman, and his wife indicated that they were okay, Deputy Hochberger then asked, "[W]hat’s going on?" Coffman answered that his wife was having neck issues, so he had pulled over to give her a back rub. At that point, Deputy Hochberger requested Coffman’s license and registration and asked Coffman how much he had had to drink that night. Coffman replied that he had consumed four beers, the most recent a half hour before the stop.

Deputy Hochberger administered field sobriety tests, which Coffman failed. Coffman was belligerent while performing the tests. After also administering a preliminary breath test, the deputy determined that Coffman was under the influence of alcohol and placed Coffman under arrest. At the jail, implied consent was invoked, and Coffman refused to submit to the chemical test.

On June 16, Coffman was charged by trial information in the Iowa District Court for Story County with operating while intoxicated (OWI), first offense, in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2, a serious misdemeanor. See Iowa Code § 321J.2(2)(a ) (2016).

On August 25, Coffman filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the stop of his vehicle. He alleged the stop violated his rights under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. An evidentiary hearing on Coffman’s motion took place on September 9, and the court issued a written ruling denying the motion on September 12.

Coffman filed a motion to reconsider, to reopen the record, and for expanded findings and conclusions. This motion asked the court for the first time "to distinguish the Fourth Amendment protections from those under the Iowa Constitution." In particular, Coffman asked the court either to limit the community caretaking doctrine "to those cases where emergency aid or assistance is needed or alternatively apply[ ] the exclusionary rule to those cases where evidence of criminal activity is gathered as a result of a community caretaking seizure." The court issued expanded findings and conclusions but confirmed its denial of the motion to suppress.

In its order, the court noted,

A car parked on the shoulder of a highway at 1:00 a.m. in a rural area in Iowa should raise a number of concerns. There is a safety issue in having a vehicle parked within two feet of the traveled portion of a highway, especially at 1:00 a.m., in an area that is not lighted. Second, the occupant(s) of the vehicle might have car problems or medical issues that they are experiencing. Most people would not simply pull over to the side of the road in this type of setting at such an hour. It would have been irresponsible for Deputy Hochberger to simply drive by without checking on the vehicle.

Coffman waived his right to a jury trial and stipulated to a trial on the minutes of testimony. On October 12, the court found Coffman guilty of OWI, first offense, in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2. The district court sentenced Coffman to two days in jail and ordered him to pay a fine and surcharges.

Coffman appealed, claiming that the stop of his vehicle and person violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which affirmed Coffman’s conviction, concluding that the stop demonstrated a "good-faith effort by a peace officer to assist the motorist as a public servant rather than to launch a criminal investigation."

We granted Coffman’s application for further review.

II. Standard of Review.

Coffman argues that the seizure violated his rights under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. "When a defendant challenges a district court’s denial of a motion to suppress based upon the deprivation of a state or federal constitutional right, our standard of review is de novo." State v. Storm , 898 N.W.2d 140, 144 (Iowa 2017) (quoting State v. Brown , 890 N.W.2d 315, 321 (Iowa 2017) ). We examine the whole record and "make ‘an independent evaluation of the totality of the circumstances.’ " Id. (quoting Brown , 890 N.W.2d at 321 ). "Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstances." State v. Kurth , 813 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Krogmann , 804 N.W.2d 518, 523 (Iowa 2011) ).

III. Analysis.

Coffman claims that he was lawfully parked on the shoulder of the highway and that Deputy Hochberger’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8. See U.S. Const. amend. IV ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons ... against unreasonable seizures and searches, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but on probable cause ...."); Iowa Const. art. I, § 8 ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons ... against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause ...."). The State counters that the seizure of Coffman’s vehicle was justified by the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement under both the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8.

A. The Community Caretaking Exception. The community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement, recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski , is "totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute." 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 2528, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973). This exception "involves the duty of police officers to help citizens an officer reasonably believes may be in need of assistance." State v. Tyler , 867 N.W.2d 136, 170 (Iowa 2015) (quoting State v. Kern , 831 N.W.2d 149, 172–73 (Iowa 2013) ). We have addressed this exception on a number of occasions under both the United States and Iowa Constitutions. See, e.g. , id. at 167, & n.15, 170–71 (Fourth Amendment); Kern , 831 N.W.2d at 172–74 (article I, section 8) ; Kurth , 813 N.W.2d at 274–81 (Fourth Amendment) ; State v. Wilkes , 756 N.W.2d 838, 842 (Iowa 2008) (Fourth Amendment); State v. Tague , 676 N.W.2d 197, 204–06 (Iowa 2004) ( article I, section 8 ); State v. Crawford , 659 N.W.2d 537, 541–44 (Iowa 2003) (Fourth Amendment); State v. Moore , 609 N.W.2d 502, 503–04 (Iowa 2000) (en banc) (Fourth Amendment); State v. Carlson , 548 N.W.2d 138, 140–41, 143 (Iowa 1996) (Fourth Amendment and article I, section 8 ).

The community caretaking exception has three branches: "(1) the emergency aid doctrine, (2) the automobile impoundment/inventory doctrine, and (3) the ‘public servant’ exception." Tyler , 867 N.W.2d at 170 (quoting Kurth , 813 N.W.2d at 274 ). The emergency-aid and public-servant doctrines are closely related. See Kurth , 813 N.W.2d at 274 (quoting Crawford , 659 N.W.2d at 541 ).

Under the emergency aid doctrine, the officer has an immediate, reasonable belief that a serious, dangerous event is occurring. ... [I]n contrast, the officer in a public servant situation might or might not believe that there is a difficulty requiring his general assistance. For example, an officer assists a motorist with a flat tire under

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