Supreme Court Says The Community Caretaking Exception Doesn't Apply To Warrantless Searches Of People's Homes

from the rolling-back-a-blown-call dept

The Supreme Court has been on a bit of roll lately. After years of making things worse for plaintiffs suing law enforcement officers over rights violations, the Supreme Court has begun reversing qualified immunity decisions finding in favor of the rights violators. It still has a lot of damage to undo from its decades of expansion of the qualified immunity doctrine but it’s a start.

A new, very short decision [PDF] from the Supreme Court reverses another blown call by an appellate court and restores some Fourth Amendment protections that decision stripped away.

In March of last year, the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided to do something a little different: it extended the limits of the poorly defined “community caretaker” function to cover warrantless searches and seizures that involved someone’s home. The decision it relied on — Cady v. Dombrowski (1973) — previously only covered vehicles already in law enforcement possession or on public roads.

In that case, a man’s wife called for a welfare check on her husband. The previous night, her husband had asked her to “shoot him now and get it over with.” She left and he stayed in the house with the gun. When she couldn’t reach him by phone the next day, she asked the police to check in with him.

The police spoke to the man and expressed his wife’s concerns. They then went to his house. He voluntarily departed via an ambulance to check in at the local hospital to see what help they could be in dealing with the mental breakdown he seemed to be experiencing. The officers took it upon themselves to enter the home and seize any guns they found. They did this despite the man (now hospitalized and posing no threat to anyone) expressly refusing to consent to this seizure.

Too bad, said the First Circuit. The home is now a car and “community caretaking” function excuses the lack of warrant or express permission to take personal property.

We hold today — as a matter of first impression in this circuit — that this measure of protection extends to police officers performing community caretaking functions on private premises (including homes). Based on this holding and on our other conclusions, we affirm the district court’s entry of summary judgment for the defendants in this highly charged case.

Wrong, says the Supreme Court, in a four-page opinion written by Clarence Thomas (and joined by three concurrences). The First Circuit had no business extending the reach of the Cady decision into someone’s home — especially when it was clear there was no community caretaking to be done.

The First Circuit’s “community caretaking” rule… goes beyond anything this Court has recognized. The decision below assumed that respondents lacked a warrant or consent, and it expressly disclaimed the possibility that they were reacting to a crime. The court also declined to consider whether any recognized exigent circumstances were present because respondents had forfeited the point.

Nor did it find that respondents’ actions were akin to what a private citizen might have had authority to do if petitioner’s wife had approached a neighbor for assistance instead of the police.

This case isn’t Cady but for houses. There were some crucial differences, the most important being who was in control of the property that was searched.

True, Cady also involved a warrantless search for a firearm. But the location of that search was an impounded vehicle—not a home—“‘a constitutional difference’” that the opinion repeatedly stressed.

And that decision even went so far as to inform law enforcement that they weren’t exactly welcome to warrantless searches of cars either, even with the community caretaking function in play.

In fact, Cady expressly contrasted its treatment of a vehicle already under police control with a search of a car “parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.”

How the First Circuit saw this and still decided the Supreme Court actually meant to allow cops to search homes and seize property without a warrant is something only the First can explain. It didn’t do much explaining in its opinion. Perhaps it will do a bit more when it handles this case for the second time.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Says The Community Caretaking Exception Doesn't Apply To Warrantless Searches Of People's Homes”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

That's one way to shoot public trust in the foot...

The idea that calling police to check on someone gives them a blank check to root through that person’s house(in direct defiance to the homeowner telling them they don’t consent to a search no less) is utterly insane, and as good as it is that the Supreme Court came out on the right side of this it’s completely nuts that it took appealing it all the way to them for a court to get that right.

Hopefully the first circuit judges will take the benchslap for the rebuke it is and reverse their decision, though given how terrible they botched this the first go around I worry that they’ll try to find some other way to condone the polices’ actions and the idea that there’s nothing inherently wrong in warrantless searches.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Liberalism vs conservatism?

We’re in a strange period in which a largely conservative Supreme Court (nominally, anyway) is issuing a series of decisions taking what were recently considered liberal positions.

And being applauded by large sections of both Right and Left for them (including me).

There’s a subset of the Left that cares about limits on police powers of the state, and a subset of the Right that cares about human rights and limiting the scope of government power.

And somehow these subsets are in agreement with each other and with the current Supreme Court. It’s a strange alignment between nominally-opposed sections of the American political scene.

Given the tensions inside both major parties (liberals vs. woke in the D party, Trumpists vs. never-Trumpers in the R party) I wonder if we’re approaching a major restructuring of US politics.

It would be a good thing if both major parties broke up and reformed into a pair of new parties with less internal tension. It seems we’re closer to that happening now than any time since the Civil War (when the R party was born).

Paul B says:

Re: Liberalism vs conservatism?

The current most logical situation is that the republican party is shrinking, at some point just from people dying and perhaps abandonment of the evangelical block they will most likely choose to split the democrats’ party of its right and left wings.

The Right side of the Dems are where republicans main stream want to be and the left with AOC and team are very tired of getting walked over, so it would be a reasonable split.

Krazykev says:

Re: Re: Liberalism vs conservatism?

There are a number of polls that show the American public is mostly not aligned with either party on many issues. Media presents congress as somehow representing a 50 50 ideological split among Americans but it’s likely that there’s more consensus than we are led to believe. And neither party represents that consensus. Wedge issues are where each party somehow looks like it’s representing a given view when those views are somewhat narrowly held.

It’s possible that most Americans support this decision but we’re not likely to hear that from the media.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Well

Yes they will.

The 4th Amendment text contains no exceptions, but the Courts have eagerly invented their own.
SCOTUS is the biggest enemy of the BillofRights and still waffling even in this decision.

the "community caretaking function" is complete nonsense relative to the 4th — it was created from thin air by the courts to further expand police power, while trashing the 4th even further.

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