February 20, 2013
The Emergency-Aid Exception

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

On March 27, 2008, Vandalia Police Officer Robert Brazel received a dispatch that there was a suicidal man driving a “big rig” tow truck and that he was planning to kill himself when he arrived at his destination. The dispatcher indicated that the driver, Richard Dunn, had a weapon.

Brazel soon saw the truck and followed it until another officer arrived to assist. The two officers signaled for Dunn to pull over. After stopping the truck, a teary-eyed Dunn emerged and put his hands up.

The officers handcuffed Dunn, for his safety and theirs, but they found no weapons on him. As Brazel walked Dunn to the cruiser, Dunn stated: “It’s in the glove box.” Brazel asked if he was referring to the gun; Dunn said yes. The other officer checked the glove compartment and found a loaded gun.

Dunn told Brazel that the week before he’d had problems with his soon-to-be ex-wife and had been taken to a hospital for a mental-health evaluation. Dunn had intended to shoot himself after dropping off the truck he was towing. Ultimately, Brazel drove Dunn to the hospital in his patrol car.

Dunn was later indicted on one count of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. He filed a motion to suppress, contending that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that the officers had not informed him of his Miranda rights.

Dunn asked that all evidence resulting from the stop – the gun and his statements – be suppressed. At the suppression hearing, Brazel testified that he hadn’t observed Dunn violate any traffic laws while following him, and he admitted that the officers hadn’t given Dunn Miranda warnings.

Nevertheless, the trial court overruled the motion to suppress, holding that the stop was a “legitimate response to an emergency situation,” and was therefore not an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Dunn was eventually sentenced to five years of supervised probation and was ordered to attend counseling and pay court costs.

When the court of appeals reviewed the case it reversed the trial court’s judgment, vacated the conviction, and granted the motion to suppress. After that, the case came before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

By a six-to-one vote, our court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and reinstated the trial court’s judgment. In reaching its decision, the majority pointed out that there are a number of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, including the “emergency-aid exception.”

That exception, first addressed by the United States Supreme Court in 1973, arose from the conclusion that the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from only unreasonable government searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment, for example, “does not bar police officers from making warrantless entries and searches when they reasonably believe that a person within is in need of immediate aid.”

Thus, the majority concluded that the emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment authorized Brazel to stop Dunn based on the dispatch that Dunn was armed and planned to kill himself.

I cast the dissenting vote because it’s questionable whether this case should have been prosecuted at all. In any event, it came before us because of the prosecution’s simple failure to meet its burden in the suppression hearing of proving that the traffic stop leading to the charge against Dunn was reasonable.

Officer Brazel stopped Dunn based solely on a telephone tip. In 1999, our court held that a telephone tip can, standing alone, create reasonable suspicion justifying an investigative stop where the tip has sufficient indications of reliability.

In that 1999 case, we wrote, “Where an officer making an investigative stop relies solely upon a dispatch, the state must demonstrate at a suppression hearing that the facts precipitating the dispatch justified a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

But the majority in Dunn’s case said that the evidentiary requirement – from that 1999 case – imposed on the state in a suppression hearing applies only to an investigative stop. The majority maintained that Dunn’s was not an investigative stop.

I disagreed; it had all the earmarks of an investigative stop. Brazel turned on his lights and siren to pull Dunn over, the two officers blocked the road and lit the area. Dunn was told to raise his hands and was later handcuffed.

The majority wanted to make this a case only about emergency circumstances. Of course it’s reasonable to make a traffic stop to prevent a suicide; but if the state brings criminal charges based upon that stop, it still must prove that the officer making the stop had a reasonable basis to believe that the driver was suicidal.

The majority cited many cases in which courts have found that officers had a reasonable basis to conduct a warrantless entry, but none of those cases involved a telephone tip as the sole reason supporting the entry.

Great police work doesn’t have to result in a conviction. Whether they’re assisting stranded motorists, helping lost children, or calming dangerous situations, police officers serve their communities daily, performing good deeds that don’t show up on the police blotters.

In this case, Officer Brazel did exemplary work. He interrupted Dunn’s potential suicide. He defused the situation with no injuries to anyone. He didn’t arrest Dunn; instead, he took him to the hospital to get the mental-health help he needed.

Why did Brazel drive Dunn himself? Because Dunn was upset over having been billed for an earlier trip to the hospital by the ambulance. This was a mission of mercy, performed with impeccable professionalism by a well-trained police officer.

But the prosecutor decided to charge Dunn with a crime, and we therefore had to consider whether the state properly proved the case against him. At the suppression hearing, the state failed to prove the reliability of the informant’s tip in a situation where the informant’s tip served as the entire basis for the stop leading to Dunn’s indictment. In my opinion, the court of appeals was, therefore, correct in reversing the conviction.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State v. Dunn, 131 Ohio St.3d 325, 2012-Ohio-1008. Case No. 2011-0213. Decided March 15, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.