Welfare Check Leads to Valid Frisk and Seizure of Gun

by | March 18, 2021

United States v. Halter, 2021 WL 709563 (8th Cir. 2021)

Justin Halter’s wife and her boyfriend called the sheriff’s office to report a troubling phone call with Halter, while he was watching the Halters’ four-year old daughter. Mrs. Halter told the dispatcher she heard her daughter screaming and crying in the background. She also heard Halter threaten to shoot deputies, Mrs. Halter’s boyfriend, or anybody other than Mrs. Halter who tried to pick up their daughter. She also reported Halter had stolen a gun.

A deputy responded to Halter’s residence to conduct a welfare check on the girl. The deputy knew who Halter was and where he lived because the deputy had prior run-ins with him. The dispatcher broadcast that Halter might be leaving in a black Impala. Halter lived in a rural area with only one outlet road, so the deputy parked his vehicle where he would be able to see the Impala if it left Halter’s residence. The dispatcher then broadcast that there could be three other cars at Halter’s residence.

The deputy saw a red sedan drive out of the lane toward the main road. As the deputy followed the sedan, it accelerated, leading the deputy to believe Halter was driving. In fact, he was. Halter stopped the sedan on his own; the deputy did not turn on his emergency lights. The deputy started walking toward the sedan and he recognized Halter. The deputy called out, “Mr. Halter, is that you?” Halter yelled back, “You’re all going to die.”

The court held the escalation of the encounter occurred because Halter chose to escalate it by threatening, “You’re all going to die.”

Halter jumped out of his vehicle, threw off his coat, waved his arms around, and then got back into his car, repeatedly refusing police commands. Eventually, Halter got out of his vehicle with his daughter. The deputies arrested Halter and seized a gun from his waistband. Halter was charged with being a felon in possession.

Halter claimed he was unlawfully seized and asked the court to suppress the firearm evidence. The trial court ruled the seizure was proper because it was based on the officer’s community caretaking function and was a reasonable part of his effort to check on the four-year-old girl’s welfare. The appellate court agreed.

The court held the escalation of the encounter occurred because Halter chose to escalate it by threatening, “You’re all going to die.” The initial contact was in response to the welfare check, and the deputy’s actions were reasonably related to community caretaking. The community caretaking doctrine allows officers to respond to potential emergencies if (1) they have a reasonable belief an emergency exists, and (2) their response is carefully tailored to respond to the emergency. The caller had heard the little girl screaming and reported that Halter threatened to kill anyone who came to get their daughter.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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