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FMG Law Blog Line

Does the Fourth Amendment Allow Community Caretaking?

Posted on: March 26th, 2021

By: Michelle Youngblood

A baby can be heard crying inside a residence for hours, and no one seems to be around.

An elderly lady does not show up for a planned dinner, the neighbors haven’t seen her all day, and she is never late.

A parent who speaks to their child in another state every Sunday night misses that call and cannot be reached.

At what point, in such situations, are police authorized to enter a dwelling to do a wellness check?  These are just a few of the hypotheticals posed by the Justices of the United States Supreme Court on Wednesday, as they heard oral argument in the case of Caniglia v. Strom (https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2020/20-157_5i36.pdf). 

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution affirms “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…”  That generally requires the government to obtain a warrant upon probable cause prior to entering a residence without consent.  The U.S. Supreme Court is considering what, if any, exceptions to this rule, are constitutionally permissible.

Historically, an exception has been recognized in exigent circumstances, such as hot pursuit of a suspect in a criminal case.  Police can conduct wellness checks if requested under the community caretaking exception.  But, if the plaintiff in this case has his way, the circumstances when such checks are permitted will become much more limited.

The plaintiff in Caniglia argued that the exigent circumstances exception applies only if there is objectively a “true emergency” requiring immediate intervention.  In that case, the plaintiff, Edward Caniglia, and his wife had a heated argument.  During the course of the argument, he pulled out a gun and told her to put him out of his misery.  Then he left the house.  His wife hid the gun and went to a motel for the night.  When she could not reach her husband the next morning, she contacted the police and asked them to escort her home, fearing that her husband may have harmed himself.  The police found Mr. Caniglia on the front porch of his house, sent him for a psychological evaluation, and confiscated the guns and ammunition in the house.  Mr. Caniglia sued, contending that the confiscation of the weapons and ammunition were an unreasonable search and seizure that violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  The First Circuit ruled that the police entry into the home was permitted under the “community caretaking” exception.  Now, the Supreme Court is considering the limits of this exception in the context of the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

Stay tuned for updates when the Supreme Court issues its decision.  If you have questions, please contact Michelle Youngblood at [email protected] or any member of our Government Section.

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