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Police Cannot Search Homes in Name of ‘Community Caretaking,’ Supreme Court Rules

May 19, 2021 by Reece Nations
The U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that a longstanding exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit police to search private homes without a warrant.

The “community caretaking” exception originates from the 1973 case Cady v. Dombrowski, in which a police officer seized a gun from an impounded car without a warrant. At the time, the Supreme Court ruled that the officer’s actions were appropriate “community caretaking functions.” 

The court ruled this week, however, that the exception does not permit police to execute search and seizures without a warrant in private living spaces. In the court’s opinion on Caniglia v. Strom, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court determined police in Rhode Island overstepped their authority by confiscating a firearm that belonged to a man who agreed to undergo a mental health evaluation.

“To be sure, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all unwelcome intrusions ‘on private property,’ only ‘unreasonable’ ones,” Thomas wrote in the opinion. “We have thus recognized a few permissible invasions of the home and its curtilage.” 

Thomas continued, “The First Circuit’s ‘community caretaking’ rule, however, goes beyond anything this Court has recognized. The decision below assumed that respondents lacked a warrant or consent, and it expressly disclaimed the possibility that they were reacting to a crime. The court also declined to consider whether any recognized exigent circumstances were present because respondents had forfeited the point.”

Further, in Cady, the court made the distinction that the police’s authority to search vehicles without a warrant but not homes amount to a “constitutional difference.” Therefore, the court ruled, the protections of the Fourth Amendment mandate protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” within a citizen’s private residence. 

While the court’s ruling in Cady amounted to a broadening of police authority, the ruling in Caniglia represents the inverse. The court’s decision comes more than a year after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police officers executing a no-knock search warrant on her apartment. 

“The Court holds — and I entirely agree — that there is no special Fourth Amendment rule for a broad category of cases involving ‘community caretaking,’” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the concurring opinion. “As I understand the term, it describes the many police tasks that go beyond criminal law enforcement. These tasks vary widely, and there is no clear limit on how far they might extend in the future.” 

Alito continued, “The category potentially includes any non-law-enforcement work that a community chooses to assign, and because of the breadth of activities that may be described as community caretaking, we should not assume that the Fourth Amendment’s command of reasonableness applies in the same way to everything that might be viewed as falling into this broad category.” 

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