As a general matter, police officers must be justified in their approach and questioning of a person. This includes both pedestrian stops as well as motor vehicle stops. Typically, an officer must be able to present articulable facts supporting the officer’s reasonable suspicion that the person who was stopped had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.
Massachusetts courts have held, however, that when an officer is not investigating a crime but instead checking in on the wellbeing of a person (or the occupants of a vehicle) the questioning does not need to be supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion. This is known as the community-caretaking exception. A few years ago, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts drug possession case discussing the community-caretaking exception. The case also provides an in-depth discussion of Massachusetts law as it pertains to drug-sniffing dogs.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, the defendant ran out of gas while driving on Route 140. A state trooper saw the defendant’s vehicle move into the breakdown lane with the hazard lights flashing so the trooper pulled behind it, engaging the cruiser’s blue emergency lights. The defendant exited his vehicle, explained he was out of gas, and asked what he should do. The defendant then called and asked a friend to bring him some gas.