Questions Surrounding the Community Caretaker Exception in Light of the Recent SCOTUS Writ of Certiorari Grant

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Written By: Rachel Leigh
Member, American Journal of Trial Advocacy

          On November 23, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to rule on: whether law enforcement’s search of a gun owner’s home while the individual was in the hospital for a suicide evaluation was justified under an exception to the Fourth Amendment.[i]  The case involves a domestic dispute during which the petitioner, Caniglia, brought out an unloaded gun, laid it on the table in front of his wife and said, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.”[ii]  The next day, Caniglia’s wife called police for a wellness check after he did not answer her phone call.[iii] Petitioner’s firearms were allegedly seized after police officers entered his home.[iv]  Police refused to return the guns until Caniglia sued, bringing claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and under state law.[v]

          According to the cert petition, at issue is whether the “community caretaker” exception to the Fourth Amendment extends to the home, thereby permitting the search.[vi]  The case comes out of the First Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled against Caniglia and found, as matter of first impression, that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement extends beyond the motor vehicle context to officers performing community caretaking functions on private premises.[vii]  Yet, since its inception, this exception has sparked significant debate regarding its applicability and scope.

          The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.[viii] Subject to a few established and well-delineated exceptions, law enforcement or other government authority must conduct searches and seizures pursuant to a warrant issued by a judicial officer in order for them to be considered reasonable.[ix] The community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement involves police activities undertaken to protect the public welfare that are completely divorced from any motive to investigate suspected criminal activity.[x]

          When the U.S. Supreme Court set forth the community caretaking exception to searches in 1973, in the case of Cady v. Dombrowski, it was in the context of a vehicle search.[xi]  Today, courts have manipulated this police function into a doctrine and several circuit courts of appeal have expanded the community caretaking doctrine to include the search of private residences. Even though the Court in Cady extensively discussed why vehicles were different from homes, it never held that the community caretaking exception only applies to the context of vehicle searches.[xii]  After Cady, the Supreme Court has only discussed community caretaking in two other cases, both regarding inventory searches for vehicles.[xiii]  If the Supreme Court intended to limit community caretaking to vehicles, it did not do so explicitly in either case.

          Currently, federal circuits and states are split regarding the applicability of the doctrine to justify warrantless entries into people’s homes.  The circuit split has expanded nearly three decades since the Sixth Circuit first explicitly held that the community caretaking exception applied to homes in 1996.[xiv]  Because the Supreme Court has only dealt with the community caretaking exception in the context of automobiles, some circuits have limited the doctrine to vehicle searches only.  These are the third, seventh, ninth, and tenthcircuits.[xv]  Following Caniglia, the first circuit joined the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth circuits in extending the community caretaking doctrine to the home.[xvi]  Other circuits such as the second and eleventh circuits are undecided.

          Further mudding the waters, the improper use of the community caretaking doctrine in combination with various courts’ misapplication of the other warrant requirement exceptions has led to inconsistencies and confusion in their application.  Through the years, the Supreme Court has established several exceptions to the warrant requirement.  Exceptions to the warrant requirement include, among others, the plain view doctrine, searches incident to arrest, exigent circumstances, and consent.  Some circuits have been criticized for failing to differentiate the community caretaking exception from other exceptions such as the exigent circumstances, and emergency aid doctrines.[xvii] Moreover, there is also confusion as to whether the exigent circumstances and emergency aid exceptions are distinct.[xviii]  The various differences in each exception’s applicability and impact have been repeatedly noted by courts and legal scholars.[xix]

          Some of these exceptions have important implications for the constitutionality of community caretaking searches in the context of the home.  Allowing the community caretaking exception to extend into homes creates the potential for abuse if police officers use the exception as a ploy to look for criminal activity or incriminating evidence.

          Community caretaking activities involve actions the police take if they are completely distinct from any “detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence related to the violation of a criminal statute.”[xx]  The exception should not be used as a guise for law enforcement to search a home for suspected illegal activity or to seize contents thereof.  For example, the plain view exception presents potential avenues for law enforcement abuse under the community caretaking exception because the police could use the exception as a “pretext” to look for incriminating evidence in plain view.[xxi]

          Community caretaking searches implicate two very important interests: the interest of the police in performing their duties and keeping citizens safe,[xxii] and “the sanctity of the home” under the Fourth Amendment.[xxiii]  Police officers frequently engage in community caretaking functions that are vital to maintaining public safety. Because community caretaking functions play such an important role in maintaining public safety, a balance must be struck between the importance of constitutional concerns at stake in the context of the home and the practical necessity of these critical community caretaking functions.

          Because of varying circuit interpretations and inconsistent results, the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment in the context of the home have differed depending on what circuit or state a person is in.  This presents problems both for citizens and for law enforcement, who are expected to engage in community caretaking functions almost every day.  After roughly thirty years of confusion, the United States Supreme Court’s agreeance to hear a community caretaking case will hopefully provide a uniform answer to citizens and police officers across the country.  This would resolve the circuit split and would provide equal protections to citizens under the Fourth Amendment.

[i] Debra Weiss, SCOTUS will consider constitutionality of home search during gun owner’s hospital visit, ABA Journal (Nov. 23, 2020),

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Caniglia v. Strom, 953 F.3d 112 (1st Cir. 2020), cert. granted, No. 20-157, 2020 WL 6811250 (U.S. Nov. 20, 2020).

[viii] See U.S. Const. amend. IV. 

[ix] Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 455-56 (1971).

[x] Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973).

[xi] 413 U.S. 433.

[xii] Id. at 441.

[xiii] See South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 369 (1976); Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 381 (1987).

[xiv] United States v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506, 1522 (6th Cir. 1996).

[xv] See Megan Pauline Marinos, Breaking and Entering or Community Caretaking? A Solution to the Overbroad Expansion of the Inventory Search, 22 Geo. Mason U. Civ. Rts. L.J. 249, 264-270 (2012).

[xvi] Id. at 270-73.

[xvii] Marinos, supra note 15, at 274.

[xviii] See Macdonald v. Town of Eastham, 946 F. Supp. 2d 235, 242 (D. Mass. 2013), aff’d, 745 F.3d 8 (1st Cir. 2014).

[xix] See Marinos, supra note 15; Mark Goreczny, Taking Care While Doing Right by the Fourth Amendment: A Pragmatic Approach to the Community Caretaker Exception, 14 cardozo pub. l. pol’y & ethics J. 229, 237 (2015).

[xx] Cady, 413 U.S. at 441.

[xxi] See Goreczny, supra note 19, at 237.

[xxii] E.g., United States v. Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d 780, 784-85 (1st Cir. 1991).

[xxiii] Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 601 (1980).

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