Friday, January 8, 2021

PLW: SCOTUS to Decide the Scope of ‘Community Caretaker’ Exception

Matthew T. Mangino
The Legal Intelligencer
December 30, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home.

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable government intrusions into their legitimate expectations of privacy. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In Commonwealth v. Edmonds, 586 A.2d 887 (Pa. 1991), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment.

Article I, Section 8 provides:

“The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant.”

With that in mind, it is helpful to understand what the high court is reviewing in Caniglia v. Strom, No. 20-157, and how that might impact Pennsylvania jurisprudence. 

Although the petitioner raised the Second Amendment and the underlying facts involve the police entering the petitioner’s home without a warrant to confiscate his guns—this case is neither about the Second Amendment or guns—contrary to the media reports immediately after the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Edward Caniglia had a disagreement with his wife of 22 years. He grabbed an unloaded gun and placed it on the table where they were sitting in their Rhode Island home and said “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.”

His wife left the house. Ultimately she called the police for a “wellness check.” The police interviewed Caniglia, who had no criminal record, nor any history of violence, and took him to a local hospital for evaluation.

He agreed to go along once the police told him they would not take his two handguns. After he left, the police went into his house without a warrant and took his guns. The officers asserted the “community caretaking” exception to enter his home without a search warrant, believing they were “reasonable to do so based on Caniglia’s state of mind.” They feared that he could be a danger if guns remained in the home.

Caniglia was release later the same day. He sought the return of his guns and was denied.

He filed a civil rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S. Code 1983, alleging the police had violated his rights under the Second Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.

The federal district court found that community caretaking “services could be required not only in vehicles, but also in homes.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed.

The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized the community caretaking exception in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973) involving officers searching the trunk of a car towed after an accident.

In Cady, the Supreme Court went to special lengths to be clear that the community caretaking exception only extended to vehicles. The court acknowledged that, “except in certain carefully defined classes of cases,” police cannot search private property without consent or a warrant. It emphasized, however, that “there is a constitutional difference between houses and cars.”

The court thus held that a “caretaking ‘search’ conducted … of a vehicle that was neither in the custody nor on the premises of its owner … was not unreasonable solely because a warrant had not been obtained.”

Since then federal courts of appeal have been divided on whether the exception applies only to vehicles or can be expanded to homes as well.

In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court recognized the community caretaking exception in Commonwealth v. Livingstone, 174 A.3d 609 (Pa. 2017). The court found “for a seizure to be justified under the public servant exception to the warrant requirement under the community caretaking doctrine, the officer must point to specific, objective and articulable facts which would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that assistance was needed; the police action must be independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence … once assistance has been provided or the peril mitigated, further police action will be evaluated under traditional Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.”

As recently as this past September the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Schneider, 239 A.3d 161 (Pa. Super. 2020)  that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Livingstone “demonstrates that the Court did not intend the public servant exception to permit an officer to enter an individual’s home without a warrant simply to ‘investigate’ if that person needs assistance.”

There is at least a 4-3 split among the federal courts of appeal on whether the community caretaking exception extends to homes. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the “community caretaking” exception does not apply to searches or seizures from a home. In Ray v. Township of Warren, 626 F.3d 170 (3d Cir. 2010), police officers entered into a home after a mother expressed concerns about the safety of her daughter, who she believed was inside the home. The Third Circuit held that Cady was “expressly based on the distinction between automobiles and homes,” and therefore the “community caretaking” exception “cannot be used to justify warrantless searches of a home.”

There is also division among state appellate courts. Arizona, California, New Jersey and North Dakota have held that the “community caretaking” exception does not apply to searches or seizures from a home. On the other hand, South Dakota, and Wisconsin have reached the opposite conclusion.

Caniglia’s petition for writ of certiorari argued, “In the decades since Cady … the so-called ‘community caretaking’ exception has taken on a life of its own.” The U.S. Supreme Court will now decide whether to pull back the reigns on the community caretaking exception or further erode the protections of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and possibly Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by Gannett. He is the author of “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010.” You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino).

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