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May 17, 2021

SCOTUS rules unanimously that "community caretaking" does not create special exception to Fourth Amendment for warrantless home entry

Though I will be thinking a lot about what a split Supreme Court did to Teague doctrine today with its ruling in Edwards v. Vannoy (discussed here), the Court also was notably unanimous this morning in another criminal case, Caniglia v. Strom, No. 20–157 (S. Ct. May 17, 2021) (available here). The start and close of the short opinion for the Court by Justice Thomas serves as a useful summary:

Decades ago, this Court held that a warrantless search of an impounded vehicle for an unsecured firearm did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973).  In reaching this conclusion, the Court observed that police officers who patrol the “public highways” are often called to discharge noncriminal “community caretaking functions,” such as responding to disabled vehicles or investigating accidents.  Id., at 441.  The question today is whether Cady’s acknowledgment of these “caretaking” duties creates a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.  It does not....

What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.  Cady acknowledged as much, and this Court has repeatedly “declined to expand the scope of . . . exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.”  Collins, 584 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 8).  We thus vacate the judgment below and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Intriguingly, Justices Alito and Kavanaugh write distinct concurring opinions, both longer than the opinion of the Court, in order to set out questions unresolved and examples of what Justice Kavanaugh views as "warrantless entries that are perfectly constitutional under the exigent circumstances doctrine."  Here is a notable passage from Justice Alito's concurrence that brings to mind a famous commercial (footnotes removed):

Today, more than ever, many people, including many elderly persons, live alone.  Many elderly men and women fall in their homes, or become incapacitated for other reasons, and unfortunately, there are many cases in which such persons cannot call for assistance.  In those cases, the chances for a good recovery may fade with each passing hour.  So in THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s imaginary case, if the elderly woman was seriously hurt or sick and the police heeded petitioner’s suggestion about what the Fourth Amendment demands, there is a fair chance she would not be found alive.  This imaginary woman may have regarded her house as her castle, but it is doubtful that she would have wanted it to be the place where she died alone and in agony.

May 17, 2021 at 10:53 AM | Permalink


The police frequently try to find a way around the 4th Amendment warrant requirement when trying to access a residence and its occupants, for a variety of reasons. Here in Kentucky, the Supreme Court found that when police officers are going to a home to attempt a "knock and talk" with the residents, they may not enter the back yard of any other place that members of the general public could not go or enter. See, "Quintanta v. Commonwealth of Kentucky", 276 S.W.3d 753 (Ky. 2008). In Quintana, no one responded when the officers knocked on the front door, so they decided to walk thru the side and back yards, to knock on the back door of the home. Along the way, they passed a window air conditioning unit, from which they said in a search warrant application they smelled marijuana smoke coming out. A judge singed a search warrant, which was later found to be unConstitutional, because the officers had violated the protected curtilage of the home to get to the air conditioning unit. They trespassed where the Constitution says they cannot go without a warrant or exigent circumstances (which don't exist for a 'knock and talk' visit). Despite the Quintanta decision, local police officers continue to go to people's back doors to do "wellness checks", when people don't respond at the front doors of their homes. The U.S. Supreme Court has now made clear that such practices are not acceptable under the "community caretaking doctrine" either.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 17, 2021 12:01:32 PM

The almost per curiam treatment (less than four pages) stands out, especially when Thomas (not exactly a 4A hero in many cases) makes it as if the case is so simple.

It suggests some members were concerned about the case being more complicated, including Roberts/Breyer (who concurred briefly) and Kavanaugh (who said largely the same thing with a lot more words and citations) and Alito (not surprisingly given his more pro-police mindset in general), dividing the Court.

Posted by: Joe | May 17, 2021 12:01:46 PM

Well, it's not that surprising that Thomas rises to the occasion when guns are involved.

Alito's concurrence also basically invites a 4A challenge to the red flag laws that some blue states are passing. That invitation seems weird to me. I grant that you could at least *make* a 2A challenge, and maybe a 5A one for takings too, but 4A doesn't quite seem to fit when you're talking about a general law, as opposed to a one off police action. Moreover, the confiscation in the red flag law case isn't for evidence gathering-purposes, it's an end in itself.

The Alito hypo, excerpted here, is of interest too. While the OP recalls a humorous bit of pop culture, something more disturbing came to my mind.


I wonder if Alito is aware of that case, which also involved someone dying "alone and in agony" at home, just in a different way from that described in his hypo.

Posted by: hardreaders | May 17, 2021 2:18:09 PM

While the concurrences only combined for four votes, it looked like the concurrences may be the more significant opinions in this case. Because, probably due to the factual situation, the officers did not assert exigent circumstances as the basis for the entry, the three concurrences basically lay out the minefield of scenarios that might (or might not) qualify as exigent circumstances.

Posted by: tmm | May 20, 2021 10:37:48 AM

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