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SCOTUS: “Community caretaking” is no excuse for warrantless home searches

Jun 1, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

On May 17, 2021, the United States Supreme Court ruled that engaging in non-investigative “community caretaking” does not excuse police from getting a warrant before entering a home and seizing property. The Court’s unanimous decision in Caniglia v. Strom could have important implications for criminal defendants. Here’s why. 

The case

The morning after a marital spat in which Edward Caniglia placed a gun on a table and told his wife to “shoot me now and get it over with”, local police officers entered Caniglia’s home and seized his firearms without a warrant. Caniglia sued, alleging that the police officers’ actions violated the Fourth Amendment, which requires police to obtain a warrant before entering a home and seizing property, absent exigent circumstances or consent of a resident. 

Federal trial and appeals courts ruled against Caniglia, holding that the police officers did not need a warrant to enter his home and seize his property when acting in a “community caretaking” capacity. So long as the officers’ actions were reasonable, based on “sound police procedure”, and aimed at protecting individual or public safety rather than investigating a crime, the courts reasoned that the Fourth Amendment did not require a warrant. 

The Supreme Court, however, firmly disagreed with that view. Writing in favor of Caniglia for a unanimous court, Justice Clarence Thomas explained that there is no such thing as a “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that authorities obtain a warrant before entering, searching, and seizing property from a home. The notion that police officers are free to enter homes at will in the name of promoting individual or public safety, he wrote, “goes beyond anything this Court has recognized.”

Why the Caniglia decision matters for criminal defendants

Before Caniglia, numerous federal and state courts had cited the now-defunct “community caretaking exception” as a reason for ruling against defendants in criminal cases. Most commonly, courts had refused to suppress evidence seized from a home after police, lacking exigent circumstances or consent, entered it without a warrant to conduct a “welfare check” on the safety of its occupants or property. They reasoned that because police initially went into a home in a non-investigative, “community caretaking” capacity, any evidence of a crime they happened to find inside could be used in the criminal prosecution of the home’s resident. 

Caniglia appears to have put an end to that line of reasoning, at least for now. Criminal defendants and their attorneys will now likely be able to rely on Caniglia in asking a court to suppress evidence obtained in the sort of “welfare check” scenario described above. This extends to any other situation in which police enter a home without a warrant, exigent circumstances, or consent. As Justice Thomas put it, the fact that police perform “many civic tasks in modern society” does not mean they have an “open-ended license to perform [those tasks] anywhere.” 

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