The Fourth Amendment states “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
There are some limited exceptions to the warrant requirement, like “exigent circumstances,” where a reasonable law enforcement officer would believe a warrantless search and seizure is necessary—for example to prevent physical harm, destruction of evidence, or a suspect’s escape. The Supreme Court, in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973), recognized a “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, which acknowledges that police officers carry out “community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” When established, the exception was designed only for warrantless searches of motor vehicles to aid those in distress, combat actual hazards, prevent potential hazards from materializing and provide services to preserve and protect public safety. United States v. Rodriguez-Morales (1st Cir. 1991). Since Cady, courts have expanded the “community caretaking” exception.
Does the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extend beyond the context of motor vehicles to the home?
The Third, Seventh, Ninth Circuits, and likely the Tenth Circuit have held that the “community caretaking” exception does not extend to the home. The First, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits have extended the “community caretaking” exception beyond the motor vehicle context, justifying, under certain circumstances, a warrantless entry into an individual’s home.
The Third, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits – Does Not Extend to the Home
The Ninth Circuit established its view on how far the exception established in Cady applies in United States v. Erickson(1993). In Erickson, a police officer investigating a suspected burglary, pulled back plastic from an open window in a basement, revealing numerous marijuana plants. The officer then proceeded to obtain a warrant and arrest the homeowner. The court held that even if the officer was performing a community caretaking function at the time, that alone cannot justify the warrantless search prior to obtaining the warrant. The court concluded “Cady clearly turned on the ‘constitutional difference’ between searching a house and searching an automobile.”
The Third Circuit in Ray v. Township of Warren (2010) similarly concluded that the “community caretaking” exception established in Cady “expressly distinguished automobile searches from searches of a home.” In Ray, police officers, fearing that a child in a home may be in danger, entered the home without a warrant. The court held that the “community caretaking” exception does not override the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment in the context of the home.
The Seventh Circuit, in Sutterfield v. City of Milwaukee (2014) also declined to extend the “community caretaking” exception to the home. Here, police officers forcibly entered the home of a potentially suicidal individual to effectuate an emergency detention for a mental health evaluation. Officers detained the homeowner, performed a protective sweep of the home, and seized a firearm that was inside a locked CD case. Guided by its earlier decision in United States v. Pichany (1982), the Seventh Circuit decided that the exception “extended only to automobiles temporarily in police custody.” The court, however, held that the entry and subsequent sweep were justified by the “exigent circumstances” exception. The search of the CD case was unlawful because the gun was not in plain view and the search was based on a hunch.
The Tenth Circuit is less clear, but appears to agree. In United States v. Bute (1994), which concerned a commercial building and garage, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement is “applicable only in cases involving automobile searches.” Thus, the Tenth Circuit most likely would not have extended the exception to the home had one been the subject of the case.
Sixth Circuit holdings are mixed. The Sixth Circuit in United States v. Rohrig (1996) recognized that warrantless entry into the home may be permissible when police officers are acting as community caretakers to stop a significant noise nuisance. The question remained as to whether this is permissible under the “exigent circumstances” or “community caretaking” exception. However, in United States v. Williams (2003), the Sixth Circuit concluded that Rohrig did not extend the “community caretaking” exception into the home, stating “we doubt that community caretaking will generally justify warrantless entries into private homes.”
The First, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits – Extends to the Home
The Eighth Circuit in United States v. Quezada (2006) did not exactly conclude that the “community caretaking” exception extends to the home, but that “a police officer may enter a residence without a warrant as a community caretaker where the officer has a reasonable belief that an emergency exists requiring his or her attention.” This standard is more like a modified exigent circumstances test, which lowers the threshold for exigency when the officer is acting as a community caretaker.
The Sixth Circuit appears to agree with the Eighth. In United States v. Rohrig (1996), the Sixth Circuit recognized that warrantless entry into the home may be permissible when police officers are acting as community caretakers to stop a significant noise nuisance. The question remained as to whether this is permissible under the “exigent circumstances” or “community caretaking” exception. However, in United States v. Williams (2003), the Sixth Circuit concluded that Rohrigdid not extend the “community caretaking” exception into the home, stating “we doubt that community caretaking will generally justify warrantless entries into private homes.”
The Fifth Circuit in United States v. York (1990) extended the “community caretaking” exception to the home. Here, the guests of a home feared for their safety, requesting the assistance of deputies so they could collect their belongings and vacate. The deputies entered without a warrant, and later contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) about firearms seen in plain view. The court applied a reasonable foreseeability standard in determining whether a search/seizure is lawful. The court concluded that the community caretaking function of the police here was reasonably foreseeable.
The First Circuit in Caniglia v. Strom (2020) similarly extended the “community caretaking” exception to the home, but instead applied a three-part test. Here, after a domestic dispute, police believed it was reasonable to seize the appellant homeowner’s firearms, fearing that he could be in danger should the guns remain in the home. The court held that the core purpose of the “community caretaking” exception should not be limited to the motor vehicle context, and under the right circumstances may be extended to the home. The court determined that for the “community caretaking” exception to be lawful the court must consider (1) if there is an objectively reasonable basis for believing the individual is suicidal or otherwise poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others; (2) if there is an objectively reasonable basis for thinking that the individual may use firearms seized in the immediate future for harming himself or others; and (3) if the entry into the home is appropriate when “tailored to the seizure of firearms in furtherance of police officers’ community caretaking responsibilities.”
These approaches are to some degree inconsistent, applying different tests and examining different conditions to determine if warrantless entry into the home is justified under the “community caretaking” doctrine. What they do show, however, is that under the right circumstances, such entry may be justified.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Caniglia v. Strom on November 20, 2020. Not only will this case provide clarity to state and federal law enforcement on the extent to which police may intrude into the home, but this case may also shine a light on how the new Court will decide individual liberty issues going forward. An evolution of the “community caretaking” exception may be viewed by some as a blank check to police to evade the warrant requirement in order to serve the community’s interest. Others may argue that the “community caretaking” exception is faithful to the Fourth Amendment because it gives “police elbow room to take appropriate action when unforeseen circumstances present some transient hazard that requires immediate attention, [which] should not be limited to the motor vehicle context.” While some cases find that the “community caretaking” exception is limited solely to the motor vehicle context, others have allowed warrantless entry in contexts that are neither homes nor cars. For further reading, see Stop Hammering Fourth Amendment Rights: Reshaping the Community Caretaking Exception with the Physical Intrusion Standard, 97 Marq. L. Rev. 123 (2013).