SLLC Asks SCOTUS to Extend the Community Caretaking Warrant Exception

In a Supreme Court amicus brief filed in Caniglia v. Strom, the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues the Fourth Amendment “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement should extend beyond automobiles.

A police officer determined Edward Caniglia was “imminently dangerous to himself and others” after the previous evening he had thrown a gun on the dining room table and said something to his wife like “shoot me now and get it over with.” Officers convinced Caniglia to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation after apparently telling him they wouldn’t confiscated his firearms. The officers went into his home and seized the guns regardless. 

Caniglia sued the officers for money damages claiming that he and his guns were unconstitutionally seized without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  

The First Circuit held that the Fourth Amendment’s “community caretaker” exception to the warrant requirement applies in this case and that neither of the seizures violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court first applied the community caretaking exception in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973). In that case the Supreme Court held police officers could search a disabled vehicle without a warrant which they reasonably believed contained a gun in the truck and was vulnerable to vandals.

The Court has never extended the community caretaking exception beyond the motor vehicle context. The First Circuit decided to do so in this case in light of the “special role” that police officers play in our society. “[A] police officer — over and above his weighty responsibilities for enforcing the criminal law — must act as a master of all emergencies, who is ‘expected to aid those in distress, combat actual hazards, prevent potential hazards from materializing, and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’”

Caniglia argues that unless a “true emergency,” is taking place, no entry into a home by police without a warrant can ever be reasonable, subjecting police to liability. The SLLC amicus brief asks the Court to reject Caniglia’s proposed rule for three reasons.

First, it ignores the “tremendous rise since 1973 of calls for help in the home” fueled by 911 service, an aging population, the opioid crisis, the mental health crisis, and the increase in suicidal individuals. Second, “[p]olice and others often have insufficient information, and certainly insufficient time, to obtain a warrant when responding to reports of overdoses, suicidal individuals, or other needs for care.” Finally, Caniglia’s proposed rule that only “true emergencies” involving home entry by policy may be warrantless would “create perverse incentives. Police and other first responders who are shielded from liability for failing to respond when people call for help in their homes would be subject to liability when they do respond.”

John Korzen of the Wake Forest University School of Law Appellate Advocacy Clinic wrote the SLLC amicus brief which the following organizations joined:  National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, International City/County Management Association, and International Municipal Lawyers Association.