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IJ Urges Supreme Court to Reject Dangerous Expansion of “Community Caretaking” Doctrine

Current ruling violates the Fourth Amendment by allowing police to barge into homes without a warrant as “community caretakers”

Arlington, Virginia—In Caniglia v. Strom, to be argued on Wednesday, March 24, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the Fourth Amendment allows police to enter people’s homes without a warrant whenever an officer is acting as a “community caretaker.” The Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Court to reject that sweeping approach as contrary to the Fourth Amendment’s command that Americans should be secure in their persons and property.

The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from conducting “unreasonable” searches or seizures. But courts often struggle to decide what is or is not “reasonable” in a given context. Here, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that police could enter the Caniglia family home to seize handguns just because one of the officers felt that Mr. Caniglia might be upset from an argument he had with his wife the previous day. In the court’s view, it is reasonable for officers to enter peoples’ homes without a warrant—regardless of whether or not there is an emergency—so long as they are acting as “community caretakers” instead of enforcing criminal laws.

That cannot be right.

The Fourth Amendment begins by declaring “the right of the people to be secure,” and history makes clear that the Amendment was designed to protect us from threats to our persons and property. It is this right—the right to be secure from government officers’ unchecked power to search and seize—that should serve as the Court’s compass when evaluating the reasonableness of police conduct. In the past, the Court has allowed police to enter homes without a warrant (or consent) only when the facts show a genuinely dangerous situation requiring immediate action.

The lower court veered away from that bedrock principle when it relied on an irrelevant decision from the 1970s involving vehicle searches. Almost 50 years ago, the Supreme Court held that officers do not need a warrant before taking possession of vehicles that pose a risk to the public. And after a vehicle is in police custody, officers do not need a warrant before conducting a routine “inventory search” to collect valuables and protect police against unknown threats within the vehicle. But that case was limited to the context of vehicles within police custody—not our homes. The Court should reject the lower court’s overly broad approach that would weaken all Americans’ right to be secure in their homes.

“The Fourth Amendment protects our right to be secure in our property, which means the right to be free from fear that the police will enter your house without warning or authorization,” said Joshua Windham, IJ attorney. “A rule that allows police to burst into your home without a warrant whenever they feel they are acting as ‘community caretakers’ is a threat to everyone’s security. We call on the Court to correct the lower court’s error and clarify that the community caretaking exception only applies to narrow circumstances involving vehicles in police custody.”

“The Founders wrote the Fourth Amendment to prevent abusive and arbitrary searches and to make us secure in our persons and property,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer, who heads up IJ’s Fourth Amendment work. “But the lower court’s decision treats our security as expendable whenever law enforcement can think of a reason to enter your home.”

“The Supreme Court should reverse this dangerous decision and signal to lower courts that peoples’ rights are too important for the government to cut constitutional corners whenever law enforcement can come up with a vague reason for why entering your home without a warrant is convenient,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice.

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