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Do You Have a Warrant? SCOTUS Confirms Narrow Application of Community Caretaker Exception and Emphasizes Exigent Circumstances Exception

Author: Sara C. Mills-Flood

The Supreme Court recently resolved a longstanding split amongst the circuits regarding the applicability of the “community caretaker exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s general requirement that searches must be conducted pursuant to a warrant. See Caniglia v. Strom, --- U.S. --- (2021). The Court held that the exception does not apply to searches of homes. Nevertheless, in multiple concurrences, the justices also explained that warrantless searches of homes may still be justified and reasonable based on exigent circumstances. 

If you’re a law enforcement officer or a civil rights attorney, you’ve most likely been operating for the past 48 years under the premise that a “community caretaker exception” exists to the requirement that a warrant is required to conduct a search of private property in order to be considered reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This premise was first outlined by SCOTUS in the 1973 decision Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973), which just so happened to arise from an incident in Wisconsin. In that decision, the court explained that law enforcement officers often have noncriminal reasons to interact with citizens and they therefore “engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition or evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Cady, 413 U.S. at 441. As such, in certain situations that are “totally divorced” from criminal investigation, an officer’s warrantless search may be reasonable to protect the public or the citizen involved. The Cady decision was focused solely on the search of a disabled vehicle sitting on the side of a highway. 

Nevertheless, in the intervening 48 years, state and federal courts further examined the “community caretaker exception” to the warrant requirement and attempted to determine just how broad the exception might be. In particular, courts became divided about whether the doctrine should apply beyond the confines of a vehicle. The Seventh Circuit took a narrow view of the doctrine in United States v. Pichany, 687 F.2d 204 (1982) and held that it only applied to searches of automobiles. But the diverging interpretations continued, and the Seventh Circuit revisited the issue 32 years after Pichany in Sutterfield v. City of Milwaukee, 751 F.3d 542 (7th Cir. 2014). 

In Sutterfield, the Seventh Circuit explained its narrow interpretation of Cady and provided a sort of status check on where each circuit stood on the issue as of 2014. It confirmed that the Third, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits had all confined the exception to searches of vehicles. See Ray v. Tp. of Warren, 626 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir.2010); U.S. v. Bute, 43 F.3d 531, 535 (10th Cir.1994) (2–1 decision); U.S. v. Erickson, 991 F.2d 529, 531–33 (9th Cir.1993). The Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits had gone further and held that the exception could be applied to searches of the home.  See U.S. v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005, 1007–08 (8th Cir.2006); U.S. v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506, 1521–25 (6th Cir.1996) (2–1 decision); U.S. v. York, 895 F.2d 1026, 1029–30 (5th Cir.1990). The Fourth Circuit appeared to be favoring a broader application in certain circumstances. See Hunsberger v. Wood, 570 F.3d 546, 554 (4th Cir.2009). The Eleventh Circuit appeared to favor the narrower interpretation but had not explicitly decided. U.S. v. McGough, 412 F.3d 1232, 1238–39 (11th Cir.2005). And the First Circuit had only noted to the “disarray” in case law but had left the question undecided. MacDonald v. Town of Eastham, 745 F.3d 8, 13–15 (1st Cir. 2014).

With that recent backdrop, the Supreme Court has now weighed in on the matter to explain just what it intended in the 1973 Cady decision. In Caniglia, it unequivocally held no standalone doctrine exists that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home. Nevertheless, the Court reiterated that although the “community caretaker doctrine” does not apply to searches of homes, law enforcement may still enter private property without a warrant when certain exigent circumstances exist, including the need to “‘render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.’” Chief Justice Roberts, with whom Justice Breyer joined, wrote a brief concurrence to highlight this reminder. 

In discussing Cady, the Caniglia Court explained that “community caretaking functions” include responding to disabled vehicles and investigating accidents. But searches of a person’s home are “constitutionally different,” and 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.” (quoting Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013)). It also pointed out that in Cady, it had “expressly contrasted” the treatment of an impounded vehicle—as was the case in Cady—with a vehicle “parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.” This statement suggests that the community caretaker doctrine likely does not even apply to warrantless searches of vehicles unless the vehicle is on a “public highway” and/or is impounded or otherwise “under police control.” The Court concluded simply, “[w]hat is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.” 

To be sure, there is likely a significant amount of overlap between what might be considered an “exigent circumstance” justifying a warrantless entry and search of a home, and what officers may have previously considered to fall within the realm of “community caretaking functions.” In certain circumstances, officers will still be able to perform warrantless entries and searches of homes. The Caniglia case was a review of a decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals. That court did not even consider whether any recognized exigent circumstances existed to justify the search at issue, because the respondents had forfeited the argument. Instead, the First Circuit simply held that the warrantless search was justified under the community caretaking doctrine and left it at that. It is entirely possible that had the First Circuit examined the exigent circumstances doctrine, it would have found the search was also justified under that rule. But because it did not consider the question, the Supreme Court was left with only the community caretaker doctrine as a justification for the warrantless intrusion into a home.

To emphasize the continued existence of the “exigent circumstances” exception, Justice Alito also wrote a concurrence that raised concerns about a gap in the existing precedent for an unfortunately common situation: warrantless, nonconsensual searches of a home for the purpose of ascertaining whether a resident is in urgent need of medical attention and cannot summon help. During oral argument, a hypothetical scenario was discussed in which “neighbors of an elderly woman call the police and express concern because the woman had agreed to come over for dinner at 6 p.m., but by 8 p.m., had not appeared or called even though she was never late for anything. The woman had not been seen leaving her home, and she was not answering the phone. Nor could the neighbors reach her relatives by phone. If the police entered the home without a warrant to see if she needed help, would that violate the Fourth Amendment?” The answer under Caniglia and Cady is “maybe.” Circumstances are exigent “only when there is not enough time to get a warrant” and “warrants are not typically granted for the purpose of checking on a person’s medical condition.” Justice Alito further noted that today more than ever, many people live alone. People fall or become incapacitated for any number of reasons and cannot call for assistance. He appeared to believe that in such situations, there would be enough time to obtain a warrant but that a warrant was not likely to be granted. Thus, he suggested that states should institute procedures to ensure that warrants are issued in these kinds of situations so that these increasingly common occurrences do not lead to tragic results out of a fear of violating the Fourth Amendment. 

Justice Kavanaugh also wrote a separate concurrence to underscore the constitutionality of an officer “taking reasonable steps to assist those who are inside a home and in need of aid.” He stated that “officers may enter a home without a warrant in circumstances where they are reasonably trying to prevent a potential suicide or to help an elderly person who has been out of contact and may have fallen and suffered a serious injury.” Under Justice Kavanaugh’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard, “the Court’s exigency precedents, as I read them, permit warrantless entries when police officers have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is a current, ongoing crisis for which it is reasonable to act now.” He stated that for such a warrantless entry to be reasonable, “officers do not need to show that the harm has already occurred or is mere moments away, because knowing that will often be difficult if not impossible in cases involving, for example, a person who is currently suicidal or an elderly person who has been out of contact and may have fallen. If someone is at risk of serious harm and it is reasonable for officers to intervene now, that is enough for the officers to enter.” In this respect, Justice Kavanaugh’s interpretation of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence appears to diverge from Justice Alito’s interpretation. Considering that a person’s life may be at stake, perhaps states should heed Justice Alito’s suggestion and enact procedures so that legal uncertainty does not result in real-world inaction. 

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