In Cady v. Dombrowski (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court introduced a legal doctrine that has come to be known as the "community caretaking exception" to the Fourth Amendment. The case centered on a warrantless police search of a car that had been disabled and towed after an apparent drunk driving accident. The police "frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions," the Court said. And that sort of "caretaking 'search,'" the ruling continued, "conducted…of a vehicle that was neither in the custody nor on the premises of its owner…was not unreasonable solely because a warrant had not been obtained."
In the coming months, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a new case that asks whether that exception to the Fourth Amendment's normal search warrant requirement should be extended to cover warrantless police searches of homes and residences.
The case is Caniglia v. Strom. It originated in 2015 when Cranston, Rhode Island, police paid a "well call" on 68-year-old Edward Caniglia. His wife had been unable to reach him after they had a fight and she was worried that he might be suicidal. So she called the authorities. The police took Caniglia to the hospital, where he was examined by a nurse and a social worker and discharged that same day. Meanwhile, the police entered his home without a warrant while he was gone and seized his two handguns. The present case centers on Caniglia's claim that this warrantless police action violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
Caniglia lost before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit last year when that court upheld the officers' actions under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment. The circuit court did acknowledge that its decision "extended the community caretaking exception beyond the motor vehicle context." It justified that extension on the grounds that doing otherwise would place too many restrictions on the cops. The community caretaking doctrine, the 1st Circuit declared, "is designed to give police elbow room to take appropriate action."
Caniglia now wants the Supreme Court to overrule that lower court decision. Extending the community caretaking doctrine "into the home—the most protected of all private spaces—would create a loophole in the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement wide enough to drive a truck through," Caniglia and his lawyers told the justices. "So long as an officer reasonably claims to be taking care of the community, he can disregard the Fourth Amendment's protections."
Oral arguments in Caniglia v. Strom have not yet been scheduled.