June 02, 2021 Practice Points

SCOTUS Holds Community Caretaking Does Not Allow for Warrantless Search

The Supreme Court does not expand the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment to allow for a warrantless search of a person’s home in Caniglia v. Strom.

By Sheena Foye and James R. Wyrsch

On May 17, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S.Ct. 1596 (2021). In a unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Thomas, the Court held that the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment from the 1973 case, Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1979) which allowed for the warrantless search of a person’s vehicle for “community caretaking,” does not allow for the warrantless entry into a person’s home.

In Caniglia, Mr. Caniglia had an argument with his wife during which he retrieved a handgun from the bedroom, put it on the dining room table, and asked his wife to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” Mr. Caniglia’s wife did not shoot him but instead left the home and spent the night at a hotel. The next morning, Mr. Caniglia’s wife tried to reach him by telephone but was not successful. She then called police to request a welfare check. Police responded with Mr. Caniglia’s wife to his home. Mr. Caniglia was on his front porch when police and his wife arrived. He spoke with police and confirmed his wife’s account of their argument but denied being suicidal. Police believed that Mr. Caniglia posed a risk to himself or others and called for an ambulance. Mr. Caniglia eventually agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation but only on the condition that police not confiscate his guns. After Mr. Caniglia went to the hospital, police went into the residence with Mr. Caniglia’s wife, who had been misinformed by police about Mr. Caniglia’s request to not take his firearms and proceeded to take his two handguns. Mr. Caniglia sued police on the basis that they violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they entered his home and took his handguns without a warrant.

The district court in Rhode Island granted summary judgment to the police on the sole ground that police were able to enter Mr. Caniglia’s home and take his handguns without a warrant as the police’s actions fell within the “community caretaking exception” outlined in the Cady decision, which allowed for a warrantless search of a person’s vehicle. On appeal, the First Circuit extrapolated a freestanding community-caretaking exception that applies to both cars and homes, holding that “threats to individual and community safety are not confined to the highways.” Because the First Circuit found that the community-caretaking exception applied, they did not consider other exceptions to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment, such as consent to search, exigent circumstances, or whether any state law permitted this kind of mental-health intervention. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s review was solely whether the community-caretaking exception from Cady applied to a warrantless entry into a person’s home.

Justice Thomas delivered a succinct and direct opinion emphatically overturning the First Circuit and holding that the “community caretaking exception” does not extend to a warrantless search of a person’s home. Justice Thomas stated, “The First Circuit’s ‘community caretaking’ rule, however, goes beyond anything this Court has recognized.” Justice Thomas went on to state that “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. We thus vacate the judgment below and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Practitioners who have a case involving a warrantless entry into a residence should read this opinion in its entirety as well as the three concurring opinions written by Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, and Justice Kavanaugh. Practitioners should ensure that any warrantless entry is not based upon a community-caretaking exception. If a practitioner has a case where a warrantless entry into a home occurred as a result of the community-caretaking exception, a motion to suppress should be filed to exclude any evidence received as a result of such entry.

Sheena Foye and James R. Wyrsch are with Wyrsch Hobbs Mirakian P.C., in Kansas City, Missouri.

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