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SCOTUS Holds Police Cannot Search Homes and Seize Firearms Under the Community Caretaking Exception to the Fourth Amendment

david-von-diemar-jM6Y2nhsAtk-unsplash-scaledA recent Supreme Court case has reaffirmed the rights of individuals against unreasonable government searches and seizures after the First Circuit attempted to expand an exception to the Fourth Amendment. Last year, in Caniglia v. Strom, the First Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island) identified a new exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures in the home. In the case, police searched a house and seized the owner’s firearms without a warrant and claimed they were allowed to do so because their intent was  to protect against “[t]hreats to individual and community safety.” The First Circuit agreed, finding that the search fell under the “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. In May, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the First Circuit’s attempt to expand the “community caretaking exception” in a victory for civil liberties and the rights of individuals against unreasonable government intrusions. 

The facts

The case arose from an argument between a couple in their Rhode Island home. During this argument, Edward Caniglia (“Mr. Caniglia”) put one of his handguns on the dining room table and asked his wife to “just shoot [him] now and get it over with.” Ms. Caniglia then left home and spent the night at a hotel. When she tried calling him the next morning, Ms. Caniglia could not reach her husband. Afraid that her husband might have harmed himself, Ms. Caniglia called the police to conduct a wellness check at their home. When the police arrived at the home with Ms. Caniglia, they spoke with Mr. Caniglia on his front porch, who denied that he had any intent to harm himself. Nevertheless, the police claimed that they were concerned that he posed a danger to himself or others, and they sent him to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Mr. Caniglia maintains that he only agreed to go to the hospital after the police assured him that they would not seize his firearms. 

After Mr. Caniglia left his home in an ambulance, the police entered the home, searched it, and seized Mr. Caniglia’s firearms from his bedroom and garage. Although Mr. Caniglia was released from the hospital later that same day, the police did not return his firearms to him for months. Mr. Caniglia then sued the police and the city for violating his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The District Court of Rhode Island granted summary judgment in favor of the police. The First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling, finding that the police’s conduct – in removing Mr. Caniglia and his firearms from his home and conducting a warrantless search of the home – fell within the “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The First Circuit also expanded the “community caretaking exception” to permit warrantless searches of and seizures within a home. The Supreme Court granted certiorari. The question before the Court was whether the “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to homes. 

Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures 

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” by the federal government. The Fourth Amendment right against searches and seizures applies to state and local governments and their agents/employees (like the police). Under the Fourth Amendment, people are generally protected against unreasonable searches and seizures within their home, though the courts have carved out several circumstances in which the police may conduct searches and seizures within private homes:  

(1) The police may conduct searches and seizures with a valid warrant. 

(2) The police may conduct a warrantless search if an individual freely and voluntarily consents to a search of their home. 

(3) Following an arrest, the police may conduct a warrantless search of the areas within the arrested individual’s immediate control, which may include parts of the individual’s dwelling. When an individual is arrested from their dwelling, the police may conduct a “protective sweep” search of anywhere in the dwelling that an accomplice may be hiding, if they have a reasonable belief, based on articulable facts, that an individual who may pose a threat to police may be hiding in the area to be searched. 

(4) Under the plain view doctrine, the police may seize any evidence or illegal items that are in the police’s plain view while they are lawfully in a home. 

(5) Even without a warrant, the police may conduct searches and seizures in the home when there are exigent circumstances, “including the need to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” 

(6) The police may also engage in conduct that “any private citizen might” within the confines of the law (for example, approaching a home and knocking on the front door). 

“Community Caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment 

The “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures derives from a decades-old Supreme Court case, Cady v. Dombrowski. In Cady, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a warrantless police search for firearms in a car while the car was impounded (and was thus in police custody). Importantly, this impounded car had been taken into police custody when the driver got into a car accident on a public highway, after which the car was rendered inoperable. In support of its holding, the Supreme Court reasoned that the frequency with which cars can become inoperable and involved in accidents on public highways often requires the police to perform “community caretaking functions,” such as providing aid to motorists. These so-called “community caretaking functions,” the Court reasoned, are distinct from the police’s criminal investigatory functions. Conducting a search of impounded vehicles was a standard police procedure, and the Court determined that the police did not search the impounded car with an impermissible investigatory motive. Therefore, the Court concluded that this warrantless police search fell within a newly-crafted “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

Caniglia Analysis and Reasoning 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court resoundingly rejected the First Circuit’s expansion of the “community caretaking exception” into the home. The Court reasoned that a central tenet of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures is the sanctity of the home and an individual’s right to be free from unreasonable government intrusions in their home. In its decision, the First Circuit did not analyze whether any recognized exceptions to the right against unreasonable searches and seizures within the home applied to Mr. Caniglia’s case; instead, the First Circuit “extrapolated a freestanding community-caretaking exception that applies to both cars and homes,” and relied solely on these grounds in finding for the defendants. 

The Supreme Court further found that the First Circuit’s expansion of the “community caretaking exception” into the home was not justified by the Court’s holding and reasoning in Cady on which the First Circuit relied. Although Cady also involved a warrantless police search for a firearm, that search took place in an impounded vehicle, not a home. Under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, “[w]hat is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.” In fact, the distinction between the home and a car, in terms of Fourth Amendment unreasonable searches and seizures, was key to the Court’s reasoning in Cady. In finding the warrantless car search to be constitutional, Cady emphasized the “constitutional difference” between an impounded car and a home and expressly distinguished a car that was in police custody after being rendered inoperable on a public highway from a car which was instead parked next to its owner’s home. Reiterating that the Supreme Court has repeatedly “declined to expand the scope of . . . exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home,” the Court vacated the First Circuit’s decision in favor of the police and remanded (sent back) the decision to the lower court for reconsideration in line with the Supreme Court’s holding. 


The First Circuit’s attempt to expand the Cady “community caretaking exception” to the home threatened people’s right to be free from warrantless searches and seizures in their homes. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected the First Circuit’s expansion of this exception to the warrant requirement, reaffirming the Fourth Amendment’s protection of the home from unreasonable government intrusions. 

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