United States v. Garner – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In United States v. Garner, 416 F.3d 1208 (10th Cir. 2005), police were informed that a man was unconscious in a "half-sitting, half-slumped-over position" in a field near an apartment complex for several hours. Garner, 416 F.3d at 1211.

When the officer arrived at the field, he found Garner in precisely that position in a field. Id. As the officer approached, Garner got up and began to walk away but stopped when he encountered a wall blocking his path. Id.

The officer told him to sit down so that the fire department personnel, who had just arrived, could examine him. Id.

Garner complied but "appeared nervous," was "looking around," saying that "he didn't want any trouble," and "moving his hands in and out of his pockets." Id.

After being examined by the fire department personnel, Garner started to walk away again, but he sat back down at the officer's request. Id. The officer asked him his name and date of birth, which Garner provided. Id. Another officer then arrived and asked Garner why he was at the apartment complex, why he "was so nervous," and whether he had been taking drugs. Id.

Garner replied that he did not know why he was there, that he had "smoked some dope prior that day," and that he had "some warrants." Id.

After confirming that he did, in fact, have "outstanding warrants" the officer directed Garner to put his hands behind his back. Id. When Garner attempted to flee, the officers tackled him. Id. A struggle ensued, but Garner was eventually handcuffed. Id. A search of his pants pockets uncovered burglary tools and a handgun. Id.

Charged with a handgun violation, Garner moved to suppress the evidence found by the officers, arguing that the police lacked reasonable suspicion to support his initial detention before the fire department personnel examined him and that, after they completed their examination, the police lacked reasonable suspicion to continue his detention. Id.

The district court denied the motion, finding that Garner's behavior "provided reasonable suspicion to warrant detaining him to investigate a possible public intoxication offense and to determine whether he was suffering from some medical problem." Id. at 1212.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed, concluding that Garner was initially detained by police pursuant to their community caretaking function and that his continuing detention was reasonable in scope. Id. at 1214-16.

In reaching this conclusion, the federal appellate court articulated a three-pronged test for determining whether a detention by police was pursuant to their community caretaking function. Id. at 1213.

That test provided that to qualify as an exercise of the community caretaking function, a detention must be: (1) "based upon 'specific and articulable facts which . . . reasonably warrant an intrusion' into the individual's liberty;" (2) "the government's interest must outweigh the individual's interest in being free from arbitrary governmental interference;" and (3) "the detention must last no longer than is necessary to effectuate its purpose, and its scope must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification." Id.

Applying the first prong -- whether the detention was "based upon 'specific and articulable facts which . . . reasonably warrant an intrusion' into the individual's liberty," id., -- the Tenth Circuit found that the receipt of a report by police that Garner was lying in a field, half slumped over, for several hours, and that he was thereafter found by a police officer in that position when an officer arrived on the scene, constituted "specific and articulable facts" that gave the officer "reasonable grounds to conclude that . . . Garner might be in need of medical assistance" and to briefly detain him. Id. at 1214.

Applying the second prong -- whether "the government's interest . . . outweighs the individual's interest in being free from arbitrary governmental interference"-- and the third prong -- whether "the detention . . . lasted no longer than was necessary to effectuate its purpose, and whether its scope was carefully tailored to its underlying justification," id. at 1213, the federal appellate court found that, because the officer received a report that Garner was "in the field for several hours and appeared unconscious" and therefore "might well have needed medical assistance," the government had a "substantial interest in protecting him." Id. at 1215. The court further found that "the intrusion upon . . . Garner's liberty was not extensive," because the officer merely told him to return to the spot where he had been sitting so that the fire department personnel could examine him. Id.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit noted that, as the fire department personnel examined Garner, the officer observed that Garner was "really nervous," and was "moving his hands in and out of his pockets," and therefore the officer had "reason to believe that . . . Garner might still have been intoxicated or constituted a danger to himself or others . . . . " Id. at 1216. This behavior, the court concluded, warranted extending the detention. Id.