No “Community Caretaking” Exception to Search of Home Without Warrant

July 13, 2021

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution states, “The right of the people to be secure in their… houses… against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.” As such, police must obtain a warrant before entry or search of a home in most situations.

However, the “community caretaking” exception allows entry without a warrant to perform “community caretaker functions.” This includes, for example, when someone is in distress or if a crime is in progress. But can the police search your home and take your property without a warrant as part of their “community caretaking” role?


Facts of the Case

One night at their home in Rhode Island, Edward Caniglia and his wife Kim were involved in argument. During the disagreement, Edward displayed a gun and told Kim something to the effect of “shoot me now.” Thereafter, Kim left the residence for the evening. The next day, she asked police to escort her to the home as part of a welfare check.

At the home, an officer determined that Edward was imminently dangerous to himself and others, although he denied being suicidal. Edward agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but only after police promised not to take his firearms. While he was at the hospital, police entered the home and seized two of Edward’s guns. This was without a warrant and without Edward’s consent.


Lawsuit for Search & Seizure Without Warrant

Edward sued the police department, claiming that they had violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant. Police responded that they were authorized to do this under the “community caretaking” exception. Community caretaking functions refer to police’s role in responding to non-criminal activities. For example, this includes vehicle accidents, welfare checks, and other similar circumstances.

The District Court ruled in favor of the police, and this was affirmed by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. That court held there was a freestanding community-caretaking exception that applies to both cars and homes. The officers’ efforts to protect Edward and those around him were separate from the work involved in a typical criminal investigation, were within reason, and were part of “sound police procedure.” Edward appealed to the US Supreme Court.


Supreme Court’s Holding on “Community Caretaking” Exception to Warrant Requirement

The US Supreme Court rejected a standalone exception to the warrant requirement in such “community caretaking” situations. During a welfare check, an officer can enter the home without a warrant to assist a person who is injured or in danger. However, that emergency did not exist in Edward’s case. He denied being suicidal, agreed to go to a hospital, and was not observed with a weapon. He also had not threatened his wife Kim. In this case, police went too far by using their “community caretaking” role to conduct a warrantless search of the home and seize his weapons.