Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t mince words. His short, four-page opinion in the case of Caniglia v. Strom said, “The question today is whether [an earlier case’s] acknowledgement of [police officers’ non-law enforcement] ‘caretaking’ duties creates a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.” He concluded, “It does not.”
In this case, a Rhode Island man and his wife got into an argument. He put a handgun on their table and asked her to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” She left for the night. Unable to get in touch with him the next morning, she asked police officers to go with her to conduct a welfare check on her husband. When they arrived, the husband agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but only if the police agreed not to confiscate his guns.
They told him they agreed. But they lied.
After he left, the officers entered his home without a warrant, took his guns, and refused to give them back. So he sued.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973), which established the “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment, established that no constitutional violation occurred where police searched the trunk of a car that had been towed after an accident because the police in that instance were performing not a law enforcement function, but rather, a community caretaking one.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals, considering this case, said that the “community caretaking doctrine may, under the right circumstances, have purchase outside the motor vehicle context” and that here it justified a “warrantless entry into” the home.
Former Justice David Souter, sitting by designation with the First Circuit, agreed with that conclusion and joined its opinion.
All of the current Justices disagreed.
While Justice Thomas got right to the point with his opinion, three other Justices wrote concurring opinions to express their views too.
Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, wrote a one paragraph concurrence emphasizing that the opinion in this case did not alter the Court’s prior holdings that a “warrant to enter a home is not required . . . [when there is a] need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.”
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a solo concurrence to explain his “understanding of the Court’s holding and to highlight some important questions that the Court does not decide,” including questions related to warrantless seizures for involuntary commitments and mental health holds, as well as “red flag” laws that allow police to seize the firearms of certain individuals pursuant a court order “to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons.”
He went on to say that these “[s]earches and seizures conducted for other non-law enforcement purposes may arise and may present their own Fourth Amendment issues.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh also wrote a solo concurrence “to underscore and elaborate on the Chief Justice’s point that the Court’s decision does not prevent police officers from taking reasonable steps to assist those who are inside a home and in need of aid.”
He continued that “this Fourth Amendment issue is more labeling than substance. The Court’s Fourth Amendment case law already recognizes the exigent circumstances doctrine, which allows an officer to enter a home without a warrant” where to do so is “objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
He said, “the Court’s exigency precedents, as I read them, permit warrantless entries when police officers have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is a current, ongoing crisis for which it is reasonable to act now.”
One thing is clear from this decision: Fourth Amendment search and seizure law is often anything but clear. As the concurrences highlighted, many questions remain to be resolved that the Court will likely have to address in the years to come.
This piece originally appeared in The Federalist Society