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Court News Ohio

Tenth District: Police Properly Arrested Intoxicated Man at Dog Day Care; OVI Charges Reinstated

A Franklin County trial court wrongfully dismissed drunken driving charges against a man found at a dog day care slumped over the wheel of the car with keys in the ignition, half a bottle of liquor on the floor, and a blood alcohol concentration four times over the legal limit, an Ohio appeals court ruled recently.

In September 2017, Columbus police officers responded to a call from a concerned citizen at a dog day care who suspected Scott E. Cochran was suffering from a medical- or alcohol-related condition when he got down on the day care floor with his dog, fumbled with the door when leaving, and then reclined in the driver’s seat. The police blocked Cochran from leaving the day care and found him generally uncooperative and insisting that he wasn’t driving, but wanted to sit his car for a couple of hours until somebody came to get him.

Police subsequently arrested him for operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OVI), and after determining his blood alcohol concentration was .361, charged him under Columbus City Code with driving with a high level of intoxication, which carries increased penalties. Cochran asked the Franklin County Municipal Court to suppress the evidence of his intoxication. The trial court agreed, concluding the arresting officers had neither reasonable suspicion to detain Cochran nor probable cause to arrest him without a warrant.

The city of Columbus appealed the decision, arguing to the Tenth District Court of Appeals that the officers met all the standards of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions to conduct a valid warrantless search of Cochran and his vehicle and to conduct a valid arrest for OVI.

Police Encounter Sleepy Motorist
Responding to the call from the dog day care, two police officers parked their vehicles behind Cochran to block him in. One of the officers testified at the suppression hearing that it was common practice to determine if vehicle occupants are safe to drive and not a danger to themselves or the public. The police found Cochran slumped over the wheel with the windows slightly cracked open. Cochran was sweating and the dog in the front seat was panting heavily. The police told Cochran they received a call from a citizen worried that he wasn’t feeling well, and asked him to step out of the car. He refused.

When medics arrived, Cochran rolled down the driver’s side window and medics checked his blood sugar and blood pressure. After determining there was nothing medically wrong with Cochran, the medics left and the officers suspected he was intoxicated. An officer observed that Cochran had glassy eyes and slurred speech, and then saw a half-full bottle of liquor at Cochran’s feet. When the officer inquired about the bottle, Cochran kicked it underneath his seat.

Cochran told the officers he didn’t have “that much” to drink and was going to a hospital that evening for a “detox treatment.” Officers again asked him to exit the vehicle to make sure he was safe to drive. Cochran responded, “I’m not safe to drive.” Cochran refused to the exit the car, and the officers pulled him from the vehicle and arrested him. He refused to undergo field sobriety testing.

Cochran challenged his arrest and the trial court judge ruled the officers lacked the required “reasonable and articulable suspicion” to detain or question Cochran, lacked justification for removing him from his vehicle, and lacked justification for requesting him to take a field sobriety test and breath alcohol test.

Court Examines Constitutionality of Claims
Writing for the Tenth District, Judge Betsy Luper Schuster explained the police don’t need reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when “exercising community caretaking functions,” which allows police to respond to emergency situations “where life or limb is in jeopardy.” An officer only needs “objectively reasonable grounds” to believe there is a need to protect life or prevent serious injury and can inquire about a person’s condition without a search warrant.

The police responded to a dispatch about a man slumped over his vehicle’s steering wheel with the keys in the ignition, which gave the officers reasonable grounds to approach Cochran, the appellate court opinion stated. When the medics left the scene after determining Cochran wasn’t suffering from a medical issue, the officers were justified in conducting an investigatory search, the court ruled.

“They formed this belief based on the reports of the witness who called police informing them that a man was slumped over the wheel of his car, that the man had laid on the ground with his dog, fumbled with the door, and stumbled when he exited the business, as well as their personal observations that Cochran had glassy eyes, delayed reactions, slow speech, and was uncooperative. Additionally, they saw that the key was in the ignition of the vehicle. We conclude these are specific, articulable facts upon which the officers could form a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was, or was about to be, afoot,” the opinion stated.

Judge Luper Schuster wrote that police at that point don’t need to know the exact criminal activity Cochran was involved in at the time of their search, but Cochran’s kicking the liquor bottle under the seat, indicating that he was going for a detox treatment, and admitting he wasn’t safe to drive, provided the officers with probable cause to arrest him.

The Tenth District reversed the trial court’s decision to suppress the evidence and vacated the entry that dismissed the case. The appellate court remanded the case to the municipal court to conduct further proceedings.

Judges Susan Brown and Lisa L. Sadler joined the opinion.

Columbus v. Cochran, 2019-Ohio-2583.

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