U.S. Supreme Court rules in case involving community caretaking exception in residences

Professional Development

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an officer’s “community caretaking” duties do not create a stand-alone doctrine that would unilaterally justify a warrantless search and seizure of a person’s home.

The facts of the case, Caniglia v. Strom, began when Edward Caniglia placed a handgun on the dining room table during an argument with his wife and said: “Shoot me now and get it over with.” His wife responded by leaving the residence and spending the night at a hotel. The next morning, she was unable to reach her husband by phone, so she called the police and requested that they conduct a welfare check. Responding officers accompanied Mrs. Caniglia to the home, where they found Edward on the porch. Believing that Edward posed a risk to himself or others, the officers called an ambulance. Edward agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation on the condition that the officers not confiscate his firearms. As soon as the ambulance had departed with Edward, the officers entered the home and seized two handguns. Edward sued, claiming that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant.

Initially, the First Circuit Court affirmed the seizure, reasoning that the Court’s decision in Cady v. Dombrowski, which involves a “community caretaking exception” to the warrant requirement, justified the removal of Caniglia and his firearms from his home. However, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the First Circuit and vacated the lower court’s judgment.

While the Court’s decision in Cady did involve a warrantless search for a firearm, the location of that search was an impounded vehicle — not a home — and according to the U.S. Supreme Court in this ruling, that is an important “constitutional difference.” Cady’s unmistakable distinction between vehicles and homes also places into proper context its reference to “community caretaking,” where the Court discussed the frequency with which vehicles can become disabled or involved in accidents on public highways — often requiring the police to perform noncriminal “community caretaking functions,” such as providing aid to motorists.

In this most recent case, the U.S. Supreme Court observed: “What 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.’” Thus, there is “no special Fourth Amendment rule for a broad category of cases involving ‘community caretaking.’”

The Court also stated: “The very core of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee is the right of a person to retreat into his or her home and  ‘there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’ Recognition of the existence of ‘community caretaking’ tasks, like rendering aid to motorists in disabled vehicles, is not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”

Going forward, officers should not rely on “community caretaking” and Cady v. Dombrowski to justify a warrantless entry into a home or to justify a warrantless seizure of weapons inside a person’s home. It is likely that our Courts will be guided by State v. Witczak, 421 N.J. Super. 180, 196-97 (App. Div. 2011), which involves community caretaking in a “home context” rather than a “vehicle context.” Based on this ruling and our current case law, the following guidance is offered:

  • The actions of the police will be analyzed using the objective reasonableness standard.
  • The police must be acting to fulfill a genuine community caretaking responsibility.
  • The police must have evidence of some form of exigency that compels them to ensure the safety and well-being of the public at large.

This means that Courts will consider whether the police were motivated by giving assistance or by investigating a crime in their initial entry into the home.