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Does the Community Care Taker exception allow police to enter the home without a warrant under the 4th Amendment?

One of the primary concerns of the Founders was to protect the home from unreasonable government intrusion.  A case pending before the United States Supreme Court, Caniglia v. Strom, asks the question of whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home.

What is “community caretaking?”

To understand the issues in Canigila, we must look back at previous cases decided by the Supreme Court.  In Cady v. Dombrowski, the Court held that police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched the trunk of a car that had been towed after an accident.  The Court acknowledged that, “except in certain carefully defined classes of cases,” police cannot search private property without consent or a warrant.  It emphasized, however, that “there is a constitutional difference between houses and cars.”  Since Cady, there has been a whole host of cases that took this holding and created the doctrine of “community caretaking.”  Cady defined community caretaking activities as those “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”  In Cady, the Court found that searches conducted in the performance of community caretaking activities do not require warrants and should be subjected to “the general standard of ‘unreasonableness’ as a guide in determining” their constitutionality.”  Cady’s holding began as a rule authorizing a routine, warrantless inventory search of an automobile lawfully impounded by the police.  Courts have come to view these police functions as a doctrine, In such cases, law enforcement officers perform dual community caretaking functions of aiding persons in need of assistance and protecting property.

This “community caretaking” idea can be suspicious, because there is no clear line as to when the community caretaking ends.  The First Circuit held in this situation that “that the community caretaking doctrine may, under the right circumstances, have purchase outside the motor vehicle context”— including to justify a “warrantless entry into an individual’s home.”

What happened in the Canigila case?

Edward Canigila is a 68 year old man from Cranston, Rhode Island who had been married to his wife Kim for twenty-two years.  As all couples do, they had a fight on the night of August 5th, 2015, the inside their home.  When the argument got worse, Canigila went into the bedroom and got his unloaded gun.  He went back to the living room and, in a dramatic gesture, put the gun on the table and said, “why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.”  After this fight, Kim decided to spend the night in a hotel.  The next day, she tried calling Edward, but he would not pick up, so she called the police to make a “well call” to the home, she was concerned about his safety.  When the police arrived, they spoke to Edward and believed that he was at risk to harm himself.  He went to the hospital and was discharged the same day. While at the hospital, the officers took Edward’s guns, as they believed it was best for everyone’s safety if he did not have access to them.

One month passed, and the police department refused to give Edward his guns back, even after attorneys intervened.  As a result, Edward sued the city of Cranston and the police officers individually for violating his Second, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The main issue now is that the police officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they entered his home and seized items without a warrant. The only justification the officers could offer is that they were acting in their “community caretaking” function. The First Circuit found that the officers were acting in their community caretaking capacity, and that the officers were justified in the warrantless search and seizure of the Canigila home.

There is currently a circuit split on this issue. The Third, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have held that the community caretaking exception does not extend to the home. Because Cady was expressly based on the distinction between automobiles and homes, theses circuits have held that the community caretaking exception cannot be used to justify warrantless searches of a home. These circuits interpret Cady as drawing a clear line between the home and automobile.  On the other hand,  the Fifth, Eighth, and First Circuits have held that the community caretaking exception can extend to the home.

By siding with these circuits, the First Circuit dramatically expanded the community caretaking exception, and in turn, gives police officers more power and more responsibilities. This is problematic for a variety of reasons but the most concerning is that this could allow officers to enter anyone’s home so long as they justify it with “community caretaking.”  This is a dangerous precedent and could jeopardize the Fourth Amendment rights for those who reside the First Circuit.

The Supreme Court should grant certiorari and resolve this circuit split issue.  For more information about important United States Supreme Court decisions, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.

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