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U.S. Supreme Court Unanimously Rejects Dangerous Expansion of “Community Caretaking” Doctrine

Opinion Closely Tracks Institute for Justice Amicus Brief

ARLINGTON, Va.—The U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously held that the government cannot enter people’s homes without a warrant on the pretense of acting as “community caretakers.” Today’s opinion in Caniglia v. Strom closely tracks arguments made in an amicus brief submitted by the Institute for Justice.

The case involved police entering the Caniglia family home to seize handguns without a warrant or an emergency. One officer felt that Mr. Caniglia might be upset due to an argument he had with his wife the day before. To seize the weapons, the officers lied to Ms. Caniglia after taking her husband to the hospital for an evaluation.

Mr. Caniglia sued for the return of the weapons, arguing that the government’s invasion of the Caniglias’ home violated the Fourth Amendment. But the government responded that police were justified in entering the home because they were acting as “community caretakers.” The government argued that this “community caretaking” exception allows police to enter someone’s home without a warrant or an emergency so long as they are performing some non-investigative “community caretaking” function.

The Institute for Justice filed an amicus brief outlining how the government’s “community caretaking” exception would blow a house-sized hole in the Fourth Amendment. Americans’ right to be secure historically meant that the government couldn’t enter someone’s home without a warrant or the existence of a real emergency. But the “community caretaking” doctrine was originally a narrow exception meant for disabled vehicles. Extending it to the home would mean the government could enter without a warrant whenever an officer felt it might in some way possibly help further the public’s health or safety.

“Our constitution guarantees our right to be secure in our persons and property. Allowing the government to enter our homes without a warrant whenever an officer thinks it is a good idea would turn that security into a dead letter,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer.

In a unanimous four-page opinion, the Supreme Court agreed. According to the Court, there is no community caretaking exception that “justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.” The term “community caretaking” originated in Cady v. Dombrowski, where the Court observed that police are often called upon to respond to disabled vehicles or investigate accidents on public highways. Importantly, Cady made an “unmistakable distinction” between vehicles on public roads and the home. Justice Thomas emphasized that, absent a valid warrant or an actual emergency, police cannot rely on a “standalone” community caretaking function to enter people’s homes consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

“Today, the Court confirmed that the government cannot enter someone’s home without a warrant simply for the sake of convenience,” said Institute for Justice President Scott Bullock. “In doing so, the Court reaffirmed that people’s property rights cannot be trumped by an extremely broad, vague concept of ‘community caretaking.’”

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