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By: R. Willets Ely, Volume 105 Staff Member

The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”[1] The Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourth Amendment to generally require a warrant before a search may be conducted, and “searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.”[2] The “touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness,’”[3] however, and so the Court has recognized that certain exceptions to the warrant requirement exist.

One such exception, the community caretaker exception, was first recognized in Cady v. Dombrowski, a 1973 case involving a search for a handgun in the trunk of a car impounded by the police.[4] Dombrowski, a Chicago police officer, had crashed his rental car into a bridge abutment in Wisconsin.[5] When the local police arrived at the scene of the accident, Dombrowski informed them he was a Chicago police officer.[6] Believing that Chicago officers were required to carry their service revolvers with them at all times, the Wisconsin officers began looking for Dombrowski’s gun, but were unable to find it.[7] Later that night, after Dombrowski’s arrest for drunk driving and his subsequent hospitalization, one of the officers returned to the rental car where it was impounded in an open lot.[8] The officer searched the car, but did not find the weapon.[9] Instead, when he looked in the trunk, the officer found several items covered in blood.[10] This evidence would eventually lead to Dombrowski’s conviction for first-degree murder.[11]

Dombrowski challenged the warrantless search of the rental car as violative of the Fourth Amendment.[12] The Court rejected Dombrowski’s argument, holding that the search of the car was reasonable because the search was motivated not be a desire to obtain evidence or investigate a crime, but rather by concern for the safety of the general public, who would be endangered if the unsecured revolver were to be recovered by “an intruder.”[13] And thus the community caretaker exception was born: where a police officer searches a car as part of their “community caretaking function, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence,”[14] the search may be reasonable, even if conducted without a warrant. In making this decision, the Court emphasized the “constitutional difference between searches of and seizures from houses . . . and [searches of and seizures] from vehicles.”[15] The difference between homes and vehicles, explained the Court, stems from the “ambulatory character” of vehicles and the extensive, noncriminal contact that police have with automobiles but not the home.[16]

Since Cady, the circuit courts have split over whether the community caretaker exception should extend to the home.[17] Most recently, the First Circuit has waded into the debate with its decision in Caniglia v. Strom.[18] Much like Cady, Caniglia is full of dramatic facts and dramatic implications. With this decision, the First Circuit joins the Fifth[19] and Eighth[20] Circuits in extending the community caretaker exception to the home, a decision that ignores the reasoning that justified the decision in Cady and opens the home to potentially pretextual police invasion.


Caniglia involved an argument between Edward Caniglia and his wife, Kim Caniglia.[21] During the argument, Edward retrieved a handgun from the bedroom, threw it onto the dining room table and told his wife “shoot me now and get it over with” because he was “sick of the arguments.”[22] Edward then went for a drive to calm down, and Kim returned the gun to the bedroom but hid the magazine.[23] When Edward returned home, the couple fought again, and this time Kim left to stay at a motel for the night.[24]

The following morning, Kim called the nonemergency number for the local police department and requested that an officer accompany her to the couple’s home.[25] Kim was not afraid for her own wellbeing, but feared her husband had committed suicide because she had been unable to reach him on the phone.[26] Ultimately, four officers arrived at the Caniglia home and spoke with Edward.[27] Two of the officers reported that Edward appeared normal, calm, and cooperative during the encounter, but two others, including the ranking officer at the scene, noted that Edward seemed angry, agitated, and very upset.[28] The officers convinced Edward to go to a nearby hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and, after he had departed, Sergeant Barth, the ranking officer, searched the Caniglia’s home for the two handguns “someone”[29] had informed the police were inside.[30] The handguns were seized and were not returned to Edward until four months later when Edward’s lawyer formally requested their return.[31]

Edward sued the officers involved and the City of Cranston under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.[32] Edward claimed the police had violated the Fourth Amendment both by transporting him involuntarily to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and by seizing the two handguns after making a warrantless entry into his home.[33]


In response to Caniglia’s claims, the police officers asserted that the seizures (of both Caniglia and his handguns) fell within the reasonable exercise of their community caretaker responsibilities, and thus did not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.[34] The court agreed with the officers, and explicitly “extended the community caretaking exception beyond the motor vehicle context.”[35] The court insisted that its decision “is not a free pass, allowing police officers to do what they want when they want,” and emphasized the “need to patrol vigilantly the boundaries” of the limitations of the community caretaker exception, especially where a warrantless entry into the home is involved.[36]

The limitations, as described by the court, require that police officers have “solid, noninvestigatory reasons” for their community caretaking activity.[37] Officers may not use the doctrine as a pretext for investigation, and the community caretaking activity must be undertaken based on “specific articulable facts.”[38] Further, the community caretaker action must “draw their essence either from state law or from sound police procedure,” but such sound procedure need not involve the application of “established protocols or fixed criteria.”[39] In fact, there is no requirement that officers use the least intrusive means of fulfilling their community caretaker responsibility, even if the action must be narrowly restricted in scope and duration to what is reasonably required to perform the caretaking function.[40]

The problem with the court’s decision in Caniglia, and with the other circuits that have extended the exception to the home, is that they ignore the fact that “Cady clearly turned on the ‘constitutional difference’ between searching a home and searching an automobile.”[41] The whole rationale of the Cady decision breaks down if the exception is extended to the home. As the Court explicitly observed in Cady, police-citizen contact involving automobiles is far more common than contact in the home because of the extensive regulation of motor vehicles, and the frequency with which vehicles become disabled or are involved in accidents on public highways.[42] As a result of this frequent contact, the “expectation of privacy with respect to one’s automobile is significantly less than that relating to one’s home or office.”[43] Further, the Court observed that the car at issue in Cady would be stored in an outside lot, seven miles from the police station.[44] Thus, the search of the car for the handgun was performed to ensure that the gun would not be left unsecured for any member of the public to find.[45] This same rationale does not hold for searches of a person’s home.

A further problem is that “today’s close call will become tomorrow’s norm.”[46] Since the community caretaker exception was introduced in 1973, the exception has been expanded by many courts to include warrantless searches of homes, while also having its protective limits stretched and weakened over time.[47] The expansion of the exception to the home is, itself, an overriding of one of the limiting boundaries that the First Circuit says should be vigilantly patrolled.

Another, more alarming example of such weakening occurred when the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided State v. Pinkard.[48] There, the Court held that the community caretaker and law enforcement functions are not mutually exclusive,[49] counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Cady. In Pinkard, the Court upheld a search of a home, even though the searching officers failed to articulate any reason they were concerned for the safety of the occupants, and further failed to call for an ambulance or paramedics, despite their purported concern that someone in the home might have overdosed.[50] The Pinkard holding demonstrates that disregarding the motivation behind a search opens the community caretaker exception to blatant pretextual abuse. In light of Pinkard, one has to question the First Circuit’s assertion that extension of the community caretaker exception to the home is not a free pass for officers to search what they want when they want.

A final point is that we, as a society, should be increasingly cautious about allowing police to enter a person’s home without permission or a warrant. Recent headlines have demonstrated an increasingly contentious relationship between many police forces and the communities they serve—even seemingly innocent entries into the home, as in the case of wellness checks, have led to needless deaths.[51] Given the potentially dire outcomes of unpermitted police entrance into the home, courts should be reticent to expand the circumstances under which officers may enter a citizen’s home without a warrant.


The Caniglia decision has been appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on November 20, 2020.[52] Oral argument took place on March 24, 2021,[53] so the Court is poised to settle the scope of the community caretaker exception before the summer is out. With any luck, the Court will recognize the potential for abuse of the exception and reaffirm what it clearly held in Cady, that it is the unique nature of motor vehicles that makes them subject to the community caretaker exception, and that absent that nature (i.e. when police are dealing with anything other than a motor vehicle), the exception cannot apply.


[1] U.S. Const., amend. IV.

[2] Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011).

[3] Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006) (citing Flippo v. West Virgnia, 528 U.S. 11, 13 (1999) (per curiam) and Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967)).

[4] Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 433 (1973).

[5] Id. at 435–36.

[6] Id. at 436.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 436–37.

[9] Id. at 437.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 434.

[12] Id. at 433.

[13] Id. at 447.

[14] Id. at 441.

[15] Id. at 442.

[16] Id. (citing United States v. Biswell, 406 U.S. 311 (1972)).

[17] See Steven Grotch, Knock-Knock, “Open up It’s the Poli… Housekeeping!”, Sunday Splits (Dec. 20, 2020), [] (describing the circuit split).

[18] Caniglia v. Strom, 953 F.3d 112 (1st Cir. 2020).

[19] See United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026, 1030 (5th Cir. 1990) (holding that sheriff’s deputies’ entry into appellant’s home was justified under the community caretaker exception).

[20] See United States v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005, 1006 (8th Cir. 2006) (holding that sheriff’s deputy’s entrance into appellant’s apartment was “permissible under the deputy’s community caretaking function.”).

[21] Id. at 118–19.

[22] Id. at 119.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. The court noted that it was unclear whether Edward or Kim had informed the police that there was a second firearm in the home.

[30] Id. at 119–20.

[31] Id. at 120.

[32] Id. at 120–21.

[33] Id. at 121.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 126.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. (quoting United States v. Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d 780 (1st Cir. 1991)).

[38] Id. (citing Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d at 787, then quoting United States v. King, 990 F.2d 1552 (10th Cir. 1993)).

[39] Id. (citing Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d at 785).

[40] Id. (quoting Lockhart-Bembery v. Sauro, 498 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2007), then citing South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976), and United States v. Smith, 820 F.3d 356 (8th Cir. 2016)).

[41] United States v. Erickson, 991 F.2d 529, 532 (9th Cir. 1993) (quoting Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 439 (1973)).

[42] Cady, 413 U.S. at 441.

[43] Erickson, 991 F.2d at 532 (quoting Opperman, 428 U.S. at 367).

[44] Cady, 413 U.S. at 443.

[45] Id.

[46] State v. Pinkard, 785 N.W.2d 592, 609 (Wis. 2010) (Bradley, J. dissenting); see also Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 635 (1886) (“It may be that it is the obnoxious thing in its mildest and least repulsive form; but illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing in that way, namely, by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure.”).

[47] Gregory T. Helding, Stop Hammering Fourth Amendment Rights: Reshaping the Community Caretaking Exception with the Physical Intrusion Standard, 97 Marquette L. R. 123, 160 (2013).

[48] 785 N.W.2d 592 (Wis. 2010).

[49] Id. at 604.

[50] Id. at 612 (Bradley, J. dissenting).

[51] See Doug Criss & Leah Asmelash, When a Police Wellness Check Becomes a Death Sentence, CNN (Oct. 19, 2019), [] (describing the killings of Atatiana Jefferson, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., James Allen, Douglas Harris, and Travis Jordan, all of whom were killed in their own homes by police officers conducting wellness checks); Christina Maxouris, These Mental Health Crises Ended in Fatal Police Encounters. Now, Some Communities Are Trying a New Approach, CNN (Oct. 10, 2020), [] (focusing on mental health episodes that ended in killings by the police and describing the death of Gay Ellen Plack at the hands of police who broke into her home to conduct a wellness check); 911 Tape Released in Deadly Shooting of Woman by Gastonia Police, WCNC (Feb. 16, 2012), [] (describing the killing of Shae Jones by police officers after they were called to her home by a man requesting medical attention for her).

[52] Caniglia v. Strom, Case No. 20-157, 2020 WL 6811250 (Nov. 20, 2020).

[53] Caniglia v. Strom, SCOTUSblog, [] (last visited February 17, 2021).