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SCOTUS: Cady’s ‘Community Caretaking’ Function of Police Doesn’t Create Standalone Doctrine Permitting Warrantless Entry into a Home

A unanimous Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held that the “community caretaking” function of police announced in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973), which permits police to search an impounded vehicle without a warrant, does not create a standalone exception to the warrant requirement that similarly authorizes warrantless searches and seizures in a home.

During an argument, Edward Caniglia placed a handgun on a table and asked his wife to shoot him. The next day, his wife called the police. When officers arrived, Caniglia was sitting on the porch. Caniglia confirmed he’d asked his wife to shoot him the previous day, but he denied he was suicidal. He agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation on the condition that the officers would not confiscate his guns. After Caniglia left in an ambulance, the officers entered his home and confiscated his handguns.

Caniglia sued, alleging his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island granted summary judgment to the defendants. Citing Cady, the judge reasoned that the officers’ decision to remove Caniglia and the guns from the premises fell within the “community caretaking exception” to the warrant requirement. Caniglia appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit extrapolated from Cady a freestanding community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement that applies to both vehicles and homes. According to the First Circuit, all that mattered was the officers’ efforts to protect Caniglia were “distinct from the normal work of criminal investigation, [fell] within the realm of reason, [and tracked] sound police procedure.” The First Circuit affirmed, and SCOTUS granted certiorari.

The Court observed “[t]he Fourth Amendment protects ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ The ‘very core’ of this guarantee is ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). However, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t bar all intrusions onto private property, only unreasonable ones. Id. A “reasonable” intrusion into a home is one predicated on a warrant. Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018).

SCOTUS has also found it “reasonable” for police officers to enter private property without a warrant when exigent circumstances exist, such as the need to “render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011). Officers may also take actions that any private citizen may lawfully perform — such as knock on a home’s front door. Jardines.

But SCOTUS ruled that neither Cady’s holding nor its logic support the First Circuit’s opinion in the instant case. While Cady involved a warrantless search for a firearm like the present case, the location of the search was an impounded vehicle, not a home. As Cady stressed, this is “a constitutional difference.” In fact, Cady (citing Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971)), expressly distinguished its treatment of a vehicle already under police control with a search of a car “parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.”

According to the Court, Cady’s unmistakable distinction between vehicles and homes placed “community caretaking” into its proper context. Cady explained that the “frequency with which ... vehicle[s] can become disabled or involved in ... accident[s] on public highways” often requires police to perform noncriminal “community caretaking functions.”

In the current case, the Court explained “[w]hat is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes. Cady acknowledged as much, and this Court has repeatedly ‘declined to expand the scope of ... exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.’” Collins.

Accordingly, SCOTUS vacated the judgment of the court below and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh stressed that the Court’s opinion does not prevent officers from taking reasonable steps to assist people inside a home who are in need of aid. While many courts have labeled as “community-caretaking” an exception to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entries into homes for non-investigatory purposes, any such standalone exception was devised for vehicles, not homes. Cady. But the Court’s “exigent circumstances” doctrine allows an officer to enter a home without a warrant if the “exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006). Because the Fourth Amendment protects only against “unreasonable” intrusions into the home, the Court has recognized entries without a warrant are reasonable where police enter to fight a fire; to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence; to engage in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon; to address a threat to the safety of law enforcement or to the general public; to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant; and to protect an occupant threatened with serious injury. (See concurring opinion for citations supporting each of the circumstances.)

Justice Kavanaugh goes on to include examples of other qualifying exigent circumstances: (1) a woman calls 911 threatening suicide while claiming to have firearms in her home and police receive no response when they knock on her door and (2) the relatives of an elderly man uncharacteristically absent from church ask police to conduct a welfare check after the relatives’ repeated phone calls to the man are unanswered and police receive no response after knocking on the man’s door.

Justice Alito also concurred but wrote separately to address important questions the Court’s opinion did not discuss: (1) Cady did not recognize any “freestanding” Fourth Amendment category of “community caretaking” and had only used the term in passing—“community caretaking” potentially encompassed such a broad category of activities that it cannot be assumed the Fourth Amendment’s command of reasonableness would apply to everything falling into such a broad category; (2) while the Court’s opinion did not decide the issue, it may be that searches and seizures conducted for non-law-enforcement purposes do not have to be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment rules developed in criminal cases; (3) the Court’s opinion did not decide if the search and seizure of Caniglia was appropriate under state laws permitting emergency seizures for psychiatric treatment; (4) the Court’s opinion did not address any issues associated with the seizure of firearms under so-called “red flag” laws that permit such seizures to prevent suicide or infliction of harm upon others; and (5) the Court’s opinion did not address situations where it’s possible—but not known—that the home’s occupant is in need of medical assistance.

Finally, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Breyer, wrote “[a] warrant to enter a home is not required ... when there is a ‘need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.’” Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45 (2009). Finding nothing in the Court’s instant opinion to the contrary, the two Justices concurred. See: Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021).

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Caniglia v. Strom



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