The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral argument in Caniglia v. Strom, a case that could have sweeping consequences for policing, due process, and mental health, with the Biden Administration and attorneys general from nine states urging the High Court to uphold warrantless gun confiscation. But what would ultimately become a major Fourth Amendment case began with an elderly couple’s spat over a coffee mug.
First created by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago, the community caretaking exception was designed for cases involving impounded cars and highway safety, on the grounds that police are often called to car accidents to remove nuisances like inoperable vehicles on public roads.
Both a district and appellate court upheld the seizures as “reasonable” under the community caretaking exception. In deciding Caniglia’s case, the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals acknowledged that “the doctrine’s reach outside the motor vehicle context is ill-defined.” Nevertheless, the court decided to extend that doctrine to cover private homes, ruling that the officers “did not exceed the proper province of their community caretaking responsibilities.”
Siding with law enforcement, the First Circuit noted that a police officer “must act as a master of all emergencies, who is ‘expected to…provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’” By letting police operate without a warrant, the community caretaking exception is “designed to give police elbow room to take appropriate action,” the court added.
In their opening brief for the Supreme Court, attorneys for Caniglia warned that “extending the community caretaking exception to homes would be anathema to the Fourth Amendment” because it “would grant police a blank check to intrude upon the home.”
That fear is not unwarranted. In jurisdictions that have extended the community caretaking exception to homes, “everything from loud music to leaky pipes have been used to justify warrantless invasion of the home,” a joint amicus brief by the ACLU, the Cato Institute, and the American Conservative Union revealed. Read more…