Supreme Court Rejects Police Using Community Caretaker For Unlawful Searches of the Home

The sanctity of the home as a place where people have a constitutionally protected right to be free from unreasonable intrusion by the government was recently affirmed in a ruling from the United States Supreme Court. As a general rule, searches and seizures by police and other government agents without a valid warrant violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution unless one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

The role of police as community caretakers who assist individuals when they are sick or otherwise in distress developed into the so-called "community caretaker exception" to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. This recently released decision in the case of Caniglia v. Strom comes as a massive win for defense counsel, who for years challenged prosecutors' use of the police "caretaker" role as a pretext for conducting searches and seizures of evidence in connection with a criminal investigation.

A call for help leads to police search of a home

During an argument between a married couple, the husband came out of a bedroom carrying a handgun, tossed it onto a table in the dining room, and told his wife to use it to shoot him. The wife put the gun away when her husband left. They argued again when the husband returned home, so the wife left and spent the night at a hotel.

The wife was unable to reach her husband by phone the following morning and called the police out of concern for his safety (but not for her own). Officers who accompanied the wife to the house went inside to check on the husband. They claimed the husband was agitated and posed a threat to himself and others, so they convinced him to accompany them to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

Although the husband told police that he would not go to the hospital unless they agreed not to seize guns and ammunition he had in his home, police went through the house and seized the items regardless. Police later refused repeated requests by the husband and his lawyer for the return of the items. The guns and ammunition were eventually returned, but the husband filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking damages against the police, the city, and city officials for an unlawful search and seizure in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

The trial court summarily dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the seizure of the weapons being conducted under the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. The husband ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirming the lower court ruling.

Argument in favor of the community caretaker exception

The concept of police as protectors or caretakers of the health and safety of the communities they patrol, in addition to their role as enforcers of criminal laws and their investigative duties related to that function, is at the heart of the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment.

As the city argued in defense of the conduct of the police officers who responded to the couple's home, seizing weapons that a distraught person might use to cause harm to themselves or others cannot await delays occasioned by requiring police to first apply for and obtain a search warrant from a judge. That’s the argument in favor of a “community caretaker” exception, at least.

Supreme Court affirms the special status of a person's home

In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected extending the holding of a 1973 case permitting the seizure of a firearm from a vehicle impounded by police under the community caretaker exception to the search of a person's home. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the opinion for the Court, made clear that recognition of the community caretaker function of policing should not be taken to justify warrantless intrusions into a home in the same way as a vehicle.

It is also telling that Justice Thomas made a point to highlight the absence of an emergency which might have brought into play the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment. The facts of this case clearly establish that police had time to apply for and obtain a search warrant without anyone being placed in danger as a result of the delay.

Thankfully, the decision prevents police from turning the community caretaker function into a pretext for an investigatory search and seizure of evidence to be used in a criminal prosecution.

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