The 4th Amendment right against warrantless searches of a person’s home is a pillar of Americans’ constitutional liberties. Before a police officer, or any other government official, can enter your home, they must show a judge that they have probable cause that they will discover specific evidence of a crime.
There are some limited exceptions to this right. There is an “exigent circumstances” exception. If a police officer looks through a home’s window and sees a person about to stab another person, the officer can burst through the door to prevent the attack. There is also the “emergency aid” exception. If the officer looked through the same window and saw the resident collapsing from an apparent heart attack, the officer could run into the house to administer aid. Neither of these cases violates the 4th Amendment and few would argue that it should be otherwise.
However, there is a broader cousin to these amendments called the “community caretaking” exception. It originally derives from a case in which the police took a gun out of the trunk of an impounded vehicle without first obtaining a warrant. The Supreme Court held that there is a community caretaking exception to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement because police perform “community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” The Court held that police activity in furtherance of these functions does not violate the 4th Amendment as long as it is executed in a “reasonable” manner.
In the Supreme Court case just described there was only a general concern that vandals might eventually break into the impounded car and steal any weapons that were in the trunk. So the community care exception is far broader than the other two.
Also, all three exceptions allow warrantless searches so long as the police officer acted “reasonably”. That is one of the easiest constitutional standards to meet and is a significantly lower standard than “probable cause”, which is required for a warrant. As long as an officer might reasonably think that a warrantless search will alleviate a danger to the community, the search is considered constitutional.
There is a vigorous debate about whether the community care exception can apply to searches of a person’s home as well as of their car. Vehicles have always had less 4th Amendment protection than homes, which are considered a person’s most private sphere. Federal courts have been divided on this question and the Supreme Court has not ruled on it until now.
The Court has just announced that it will hear arguments next month on a case that presents this issue: Caniglia v. Strom. In this case, Mr. Caniglia was arguing with his wife and melodramatically put an unloaded gun on the table and said “shoot me now and get it over with.” His wife called a non-emergency number for the police who arrived shortly thereafter. The police disagreed about whether Mr. Caniglia was acting “normal” or “agitated” but they convinced him to take an ambulance to the local hospital for evaluation. The police did not accompany him.
While he was on his way to the hospital, Mrs. Caniglia told the police that her husband kept two handguns in the home. The police decided to search his home for the guns without obtaining a warrant. (Mrs. Caniglia’s consent to have the police search their home was legally negated because the police untruthfully told her that her husband had consented to the seizure of any guns.) The police located and seized the two guns. Mr. Caniglia sued for the violation of his 4th Amendment right to privacy and his 2nd Amendment right to keep handguns in the home for self-protection.
The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals (which is the federal court just below the Supreme Court in Caniglia’s jurisdiction) sided with the police. The court wrote: “At its core, the community caretaking doctrine is designed to give police elbow room to take appropriate action when unforeseen circumstances present some transient hazard that requires immediate attention. Understanding the core purpose of the doctrine leads inexorably to the conclusion that it should not be limited to the motor vehicle context. Threats to individual and community safety are not confined to the highways.”
It is certainly true that the police need a good deal of discretion in carrying out their varied, complex, and sometimes dangerous duties. But they are also powerful agents of the government and their power is supposed to be restrained by the Bill of Rights. The 4th Amendment is supposed to protect the home above all other places. And whatever one’s views on gun control may be, the Supreme Court has clearly held that the right to keep handguns in the home is at the core of the 2nd Amendment.
Unlike the “exigent circumstances” and “emergency aid” exceptions, the community caretaking exception is not limited to circumstances where there is no time to apply for a warrant. And the question of what sort of caretaking falls under this exception is extremely vague. Will the police be able to use it to, for example, conduct warrantless searches of political protesters’ homes to make sure they aren’t planning on violent behavior at their next political rally? The Supreme Court is going to take a very close look at this case and there is a good chance that they will overrule the lower court’s decision.