Sean David CRAIG, Appellant v. The STATE of Texas, Appellee
Sean Craig appeals his conviction for possession of a controlled substance. He argues the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence because he was detained without reasonable suspicion and the discovering officer was not engaged in a community-caretaking function. We affirm the trial court's judgment.
After a grand jury indicted Craig for possession of a controlled substance, specifically cocaine, Craig filed a motion to suppress, alleging the State illegally obtained evidence. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on Craig's motion, and San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) officer Rafael Medel testified for the State.
Officer Medel testified that on July 7, 2015, around 11:00 pm, he and SAPD Officer Marco Garza drove by a car wash on the east side of San Antonio. According to Officer Medel, he knew from his eighteen years of experience as an SAPD officer the area was a high-crime area with gang activity, narcotics, and shootings. He testified he was aware there had been a shooting at that particular car wash “a couple years ago.” He also testified he had, in his experience as an SAPD officer, helped “a lot of people” who were visiting the area, aware the area is a high-crime area with gang activity, and “trying to figure out how to get to the freeway.”
Officer Medel stated he drove by the car wash, saw a car, and saw brake lights “go back on,” but never saw the car leave the car wash. He stated there was little to no traffic and the area was “pretty dark.” Officer Medel further testified he pulled into the car wash and activated the lights on the patrol car to let the other driver know “we're the police, so that way if he sees the car just pulling up he doesn't get scared and think we're either trying to car jack him, or anything like that.” He stated that before activating the patrol car's lights, he did not suspect any criminal activity or observe any outward signs of any specific types of distress.
Officer Medel testified that as he walked to the car, he could smell marijuana. He heard Craig try to start his car, but the engine did not start. Officer Medel then started speaking to Craig, who then opened the car door. Officer Medel testified he could smell marijuana coming from the car when Craig opened the door. After obtaining Craig's full name and birthdate, Officer Garza discovered Craig had three outstanding warrants for his arrest. Once arrested, Craig gave the officers consent to search his car. Officer Medel testified he found marijuana in Craig's pocket, a “blunt” on the passenger seat of Craig's car, and “a large amount” of cocaine in a shoe behind the driver's seat.
The trial court also admitted a video recording from the dash board of the patrol car. The video recording begins with footage of Officer Medel turning the patrol car around and driving toward the car wash. The video recording shows the car wash appears to have three or four ports to wash cars and several vacuum stations at the back of the lot. Craig's car was parked in between the row of car ports and the vacuum stations, just a couple of feet past one of the car ports.
The trial court denied Craig's motion and made oral findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court found Officer Medel turned the patrol car around to perform a community-caretaking function. It further found the State's evidence “to be credible and true.” Pursuant to a plea agreement, Craig pled no contest to the charge of possession of a controlled substance, and he was convicted and sentenced in accordance with his plea agreement. Craig appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
We review a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress under a bifurcated standard. Carmouche v. State, 10 S.W.3d 323, 327 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000). We review a trial court's conclusions of law de novo. Id. at 328. If a trial court's fact findings are supported by the record or are based on evaluation of witness credibility and demeanor, we should afford them almost total deference. Guzman v. State, 955 S.W.2d 85, 89 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997). “The trial judge is the sole trier of fact and judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony.” Valtierra v. State, 310 S.W.3d 442, 447 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010). The trial court “is entitled to believe or disbelieve all or part of the witness's testimony—even if that testimony is uncontroverted—because he has the opportunity to observe the witness's demeanor and appearance.” Id. “If the trial judge makes express findings of fact, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to his ruling and determine whether the evidence supports these factual findings.” Id.
A stop pursuant to a police officer's community-caretaking function is generally considered reasonable and not a violation of an individual's constitutional rights. See Gonzales v. State, 369 S.W.3d 851, 854-55 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012). “Whether an officer properly invoked his community-caretaking function requires a two-step inquiry: (1) whether the officer was primarily motivated by a community-caretaking purpose; and (2) whether the officer's belief that the individual needs help was reasonable.” Id. An officer's community-caretaking function, based on an officer's duty to “serve and protect,” includes the authority to “stop and assist an individual whom a reasonable person, given the totality of the circumstances, would believe is in need of help.” Id. at 854. Officer Medel testified he parked the patrol car behind Craig's car and activated the lights to assist the driver whose car appeared unable to move, not to investigate criminal activity. We will not “second-guess the trial judge's determination of an issue that is supported by the record and depends so much on credibility and demeanor.” See id. at 855. Thus, whether the trial court erred depends on “whether the officer's belief that the individual needs help was reasonable.” See id. at 854-55.
To determine the reasonableness of the officer's belief that an individual needs assistance, we may consider a non-exclusive list of factors: “(1) the nature and level of the distress exhibited by the individual; (2) the location of the individual; (3) whether or not the individual was alone and/or had access to assistance independent of that offered by the officer; and (4) to what extent the individual—if not assisted—presented a danger to himself or others.” Id. at 855. “[T]he first factor is entitled to the greatest weight, [but] it is not always dispositive” because the level of exhibited distress may be more or less serious depending upon the circumstances. Id.
Officer Medel observed discernible indicia of distress when he observed Craig's car alone in the middle of a car wash lot at 11:00 p.m., the brake lights activating multiple times, the car not moving, the car was not parked in a car wash port, and the driver did not appear to be using the car wash's facilities. Although Officer Medel did not know the exact nature of Craig's distress, it was reasonable for Officer Medel to believe Craig was experiencing some type of car trouble. See id. at 856. “In evaluating reasonableness in this context, courts have never required an officer to know, with any degree of certainty, the specific distress an individual may be suffering.” Id.
Additionally, these exhibited indicia of distress were compounded by Craig's location—the second factor—which Officer Medel described as a high-crime area with gang activity and shootings and an area in which drivers were often lost and felt unsafe.
The third and fourth factors respectively weigh whether Craig was alone or had access to assistance apart from Officer Medel and Garza's and to what extent Craig, if not assisted, presented a danger to himself or others. The video recording shows there is an apartment complex across the street from the car wash and other businesses in the area, but the time was approximately 11:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and there was very little traffic. Craig's access to other assistance would have likely been limited given the location in a high-crime area with gang violence and shootings, the time of night, and the light traffic. These facts, which were known by Officer Medel in his experience working for SAPD on the east side, also support the fourth factor that if left unassisted, Craig's inability to move his car might have presented a danger to himself.
In this case, Officer Medel could have reasonably concluded Craig “was suffering from distress resulting from car trouble, a flat tire, or running out of gas—a distress no less significant to an officer's function as a public servant.” Id. We hold Officer Medel reasonably exercised his community-caretaking function because, under the totality of the circumstances, it was reasonable to believe Craig was in need of help. See id. at 854-56; see also Flores v. State, No. 04-13-00548-CR, 2014 WL 7340279, at *2-3 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Dec. 23, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op., not designated for publication) (holding officer who approached a car parked across several parking spots in a McDonald's parking lot at 3:00 a.m. while the drive-through was open to determine whether the driver, who was slumped over steering wheel, needed help was exercising community caretaking function). Officer Medel and Garza's initial stop was therefore reasonable. After being arrested on outstanding warrants, Craig gave Officer Medel consent to search his vehicle, where Officer Medel found the cocaine.
Because the trial court properly denied Craig's motion to suppress, we affirm the trial court's judgment.
Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice