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FMCSR Week 8: Community Caretakers

To protect and serve.   The sloganeers from a past generation of law enforcement penned that phrase…and for good reason.   It represents the “necessary-good” side of police work.   The citizens depend on police officers for their security.   It represents the human face of the liberty.  The “necessary-evil” side of police work uses enforcement as a mechanism to protect and serve.  Either method of protecting and serving has the purpose of community caretaking.  This article examines the community caretaking role and how local police enforcing the FMCSR are improperly employing it.

There is no argument that unsafe vehicles should not be operating on the highways of this state.  Police officers have a sworn duty to protect.  However, that end does not always justify the means.  Armed robbery is bad, but does that justify a police officer to force entry into homes when the mood strikes him right just to find potential weapons that could be used in an armed robbery?  The analogy may sound a little severe, but when a police officer begins using the FMCSR without authority to go on a fishing expedition under the guise of “protecting the community from unsafe vehicles”, he is doing the same thing.  He is justifying a faulty means of enforcement to satisfy a legitimate end.

The problem begins when the local police officer attempts to do what is the sole authority of the Illinois State Police…a motor carrier inspection, whether he calls it that or not.  He does not have the training to do an adequate or fair job of it.  This cursory knowledge leads to punitive enforcement and erroneous citations.  In the end, the local police officer uses his community caretaker role to shield himself from the criticism and the harsh reality that he did his job improperly.  The rationalization is “I protected and served the community by detecting this unsafe vehicle”.  Maybe, but you violated someones constitutional rights to do it.

There is an unfortunate reality occurring in Illinois.  Local police officers are being trained to abrogate the Illinois Vehicle Code by disguising FMCSR enforcement under the mask of community caretaking…here’s how:  In 625 ILCS 5/11-203, the IVC requires persons to obey police officers “invested by law with authority to direct, control or regulate traffic.”  The ITEA believes a police officer performing traffic enforcement meets this definition.  However, the mandated obedience is predicated on a “lawful order” in the subject part of the phrase.  How is a police officer detaining, searching and citing a driver for a supposed violation of a law, to which he has no authority or training to enforce, a “lawful order”?

Even more troubling is training local police officers receive to order a driver/vehicle “not to move” until the problem has been remedied, under penalty of the above cited statute.  Oh, the students are admonished they cannot say “out-of-service” as that is a term from the FMCSR reserved only for the state police.  Instead they shoehorn the “do not move” phrase into 5/11-203…and then they are encouraged to place a sticker that says the same on the suspect vehicle!   Insert “walk+quack=duck” analogy.  How is revoking the liberty of a driver and restricting the right to use ones’ own vehicle “protecting and serving”, especially in the good chance the evidence used was improperly obtained and understood?

When a local police officer lawfully stops a vehicle and detects a violation which he has authority to enforce, he is performing the community caretaker role.  For instance, if a driver does not have a CDL, the officer can cite the violation and order the driver not to continue driving.  Why?  Because a local police officer has authority to enforce CDL violations.  If a local police officer detects an overweight violation, he can order the driver not to move the vehicle until the load has been legalized.  Why?  Because he has authority to investigate overweight vehicles and the law mandates the load be legalized.  That is sure footing.  That is good police work.

In a recent ITEA certification class, a student asked if he was outside his authority when he stopped a truck literally dragging a trailer down the road. He said one trailer wheel was hanging on by a single lugnut and steel parts were parking off the ground.  The officer did not cite the driver, but told him to fix the violation before continuing on or have it towed away.  That is a proper use of the community caretaker role.  Any reasonable person could articulate the imminent danger.  This situation is a far cry different than what has been described above.

The ITEA believes a seasoned local truck officer should have a working knowledge of the FMCSR and be able to spot a serious violation…it could save a life.  However, he must discover the violation lawfully and report it to the proper authority for enforcement.  The good community caretaker acts within the bounds of a law he was sworn to uphold…he knows his limitations.  A poor community caretaker manipulates the law for reasons to suit himself.

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