Homes Compose the Community: Extend the Community Caretaking Exception to Homes

Kristyn Couvillion

I. Background

A fundamental right secured by the Bill of Rights is the right of individuals to be free of unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment states:

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.[1]

Throughout Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the U.S. Supreme Court has established a reasonableness standard. Courts apply a reasonableness standard when limiting the Fourth Amendment. When an exception to the Fourth Amendment is properly met, law enforcement can conduct a warrantless search or seizure. Some notable exceptions justifying warrantless searches and seizures are exigent circumstances, search incident to arrest, plain view, and consent.[2]

The community caretaking exception is an exception to the Fourth Amendment that was recognized in Cady v. Dombrowski.[3] The community caretaking exception permits law enforcement to make a warrantless search or seizure when officers are conducting “community caretaking” functions that are distinct from investigative or detective functions.[4] Fourth Amendment case law has generally afforded homes more protection than vehicles, and the Cady Court was distinctly aware of that fact. Although the Cady Court highlighted the difference between cars and homes when it formulated the community caretaking exception, the Court did not explicitly limit the exception to cars.[5]

Since the Court articulated the community caretaking exception in Cady, the federal courts of appeal have reached varying conclusions on whether the community caretaking exception applies to the home. The Third, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have held that the exception does not apply to homes.[6] The Tenth Circuit has not determined if the exception extends to private homes. However, the Tenth Circuit declined to extend the exception to private commercial buildings.[7] Sixth Circuit cases give mixed interpretations in dicta but suggest that the exception would not apply to homes.[8]

By contrast, the First, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits hold that the community caretaking exception does extend to the home under appropriate circumstances.[9] In Caniglia v. Strom, the First Circuit articulated a three-part test for determining when the community caretaking exception justifies a warrantless search or seizure within a home.[10] The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Caniglia in late November 2020.[11] Due to the social service requirements of law enforcement officers, which require them to perform non-investigative, public safety duties, and in an effort to refrain from narrowing the exigent circumstances exception, the Supreme Court should hold that the community caretaking exception does extend to the home in limited situations. In order to understand the implications of recognizing a community caretaking exception in the context of homes, it is useful to discuss the origins of the community caretaking exception.

II. Cady v. Dombrowski

In Cady v. Dombrowski, Dombrowski was in a single-car accident while driving a rented Ford Thunderbird in Wisconsin.[12] At the scene of the accident, Dombrowski appeared drunk and indicated to officers that he was a Chicago police officer.[13] The Wisconsin officers were under the impression that Chicago officers were required to carry a service weapon but did not find one on Dombrowski’s person, in the front seat, or glove compartment.[14] Dombrowski was later taken to a hospital and fell into a coma.[15] Meanwhile, the Thunderbird was towed and left outside a private garage.[16] The next day, an officer went to the car to look for the service weapon, which he found in the trunk along with several bloody items.[17] Officers questioned Dombrowski about the bloody items when he woke from the coma, and on counsel’s advice, he told the Wisconsin officers that a body could be located on his brother’s farm.[18] Upon investigation, the officers found the body and a Dodge vehicle.[19] Officers could see other bloody items inside the Dodge from the window, so they obtained a warrant to search the Dodge and the Thunderbird.[20] After executing the warrant, officers inventoried the seized items but, notably, did not include a bloody sock or floormat on the list of items.[21] Dombrowski was convicted of first-degree murder using evidence that included the bloody sock and floormat.[22]

The issue before the Supreme Court in Cady was if the search of the Thunderbird that resulted in finding the service weapon and the seizure of the bloody sock and floormat was an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.[23] In its analysis, the Court differentiated homes from cars and explained the traditional rationale behind affording fewer protections to cars. The Court acknowledged that part of that rationale is that “noncriminal contact with automobiles will bring local officials in ‘plain view’ of evidence, fruits, or instrumentalities of a crime or contraband.”[24]

Prior to discussing the constitutionality of the search and seizure, the Court made a point to emphasize two facts they found important. First, the police exercised custody over the vehicle in towing it to the garage because Dombrowski was too inebriated to make arrangements for the Thunderbird’s transportation, and it was dangerous to keep the car on the side of the road.[25] Second, the Wisconsin officer followed standard police protocol when he went to the car to look for the weapon in an effort to protect the public because the car was outside the private garage with no guard.[26] The Court reasoned that because the Wisconsin police had already exercised control over the car and they were acting to protect the public, without knowledge of the murder or any crime related to the service weapon, their actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment because it was a reasonable caretaking search.[27] The Court used Harris v. United States as support in reaching its holding.[28] In Harris, officers searched an impounded vehicle associated with a robbery, and when the vehicle’s door was opened, a vehicle registration card belonging to the victim fell into plain view.[29] The Harris Court held that this warrantless search was not unreasonable because it was protocol to remove valuables from impounded vehicles. Because it was not an unreasonable search, the registration card came into plain view.[30] The Court further explained that it was constitutionally insignificant that the sock and floormat were not listed as items seized because they were seized while executing a valid warrant.[31] Thus, the items were not seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment.[32]

III. The Exigent Circumstances Exception Supports the Caretaking Exception

The exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement permits officers to conduct a warrantless entry of a home when there is a reasonable basis to believe that an exigency exists.[33] The Supreme Court has recognized exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless entry of a home where law enforcement entered the home to render emergency aid to an occupant or to prevent an occupant from harm.[34] This exception has permitted law enforcement to eliminate or neutralize dangers to others and themselves without fear of offending the Fourth Amendment when it is reasonable for officers to believe that such dangers exist. The cases that have extended the community caretaking exception to the home, or that have supported a warrantless entry into the home to provide assistance or safety to the occupants, are analogous situations to rendering aid or protecting against harm.[35]

Ultimately, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.[36] Thus, reasonableness continues to be the standard for permissible searches and seizures.[37] Cady and Caniglia both emphasize reasonableness and both place limitations on law enforcement’s ability to utilize the exception.[38] Caniglia does not diverge from Cady by extending the exception into the home. Rather, Caniglia promotes reasonableness by placing limitations on the exception, applying only in situations analogous to exigent circumstances, and promoting law enforcement’s ability to serve their communities in non-investigative functions.[39] Further, the Cady Court supported its rationale by stating it is often non-criminal conduct that brings officers in contact with cars.[40] When performing community caretaking functions, officers are not looking for criminal wrongdoing upon entering the home; therefore, extending the exception to the home is in line with the rationale used in Cady.[41] Due to the focus on reasonableness in the Caniglia test, the Supreme Court should extend the community caretaking exception to the home when the Caniglia test is satisfied and officers are performing non-investigative, caretaking functions.

IV. The Circuit Split

The circuits that have approved of the community caretaking exception in the home have done so in situations that resemble the existing exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment.[42] The factual situations involved in such cases have also concerned the safety of the occupants, resembling the emergency aid exception. The Eighth Circuit reviewed an appeal of a motion to suppress where defendant, Quezada, sought to suppress a shotgun as evidence.[43] The officer went to serve a child protection order at a home where Quezada did not live, and when he knocked on the door, it opened.[44] The officer called out, announcing his presence, but heard no response other than the sound of a television playing.[45] The officer was concerned that someone was home but unable to answer after no one responded to his calls.[46] When the officer entered, he saw legs and a shotgun sticking out of a doorframe.[47] The officer seized the shotgun and arrested Quezada for being a felon in possession of a firearm.[48] The Eighth Circuit recognized that when an officer is not acting to investigate, the Fourth Amendment requires a lower standard than probable cause.[49] In this case, the officer’s belief that someone in the apartment may need his assistance was a reasonable justification to permit his warrantless entry, and because the officer was lawfully in the apartment, the shotgun came within his plain view.[50] Thus, the lower court’s denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed.[51] Essentially, the Eighth Circuit approved of the community caretaking exception as a lower exigent circumstances exception.

The Fifth Circuit permitted extending the community caretaking exception to the home in United States v. York.[52] In that case, guests of a home wanted to regain their belongings but feared for their safety because York, the homeowner, became drunk and belligerent to a guest and his children.[53] An officer responded to a disturbance call and met the guest, who requested that the officer accompany him to the home so he could safely gather his possessions.[54] Officers called the home, and York’s daughter answered, came outside, and told officers that York was sleeping but led the officers into the house.[55] When the officers entered the home, there were several firearms visible.[56] Some of the visible firearms were large-capacity weapons, and, notably, one was a sawed-off shotgun.[57] The officers then contacted the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms because the possession of some of the weapons they saw was illegal.[58] Ultimately, York was convicted of illegally possessing the firearms.[59] Upon review, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the officers were performing community caretaking functions and applied a reasonable foreseeability standard to justify the officers’ warrantless entry.[60] The court found the entry was reasonable and justified because it was reasonably foreseeable that officers would act in the way they did in response to York’s drunkenness and threats to his guests.[61] Although this factual scenario does not rise to emergency aid, the court was still concerned for safety and harm prevention that serves the same purpose as the emergency aid exception—protecting the public.

The First Circuit approved of the community caretaking exception’s application to the home in Caniglia v. Strom.[62] There, Kim Caniglia left her home after a disturbance with her husband, Edward, where he slammed a gun on the table and said something like “shoot me now and get it over with.”[63] The next day, she was unable to get in contact with her husband, so she contacted police officers to accompany her into the home for a welfare check because she feared that Edward committed suicide.[64] When the officers went to the home, they interacted with Edward and concluded he needed psychiatric evaluation.[65] Additionally, officers seized the firearms and ammunition with Kim’s consent, although Edward, the owner, objected to the seizure.[66] On appeal, the First Circuit extended the community caretaking exception to the home because of the multi-faceted role that officers play in protecting society.[67] Further, the court acknowledged that the caretaking function that justified the Supreme Court’s holding in Cady can be applied to non-vehicular situations.[68] However, the First Circuit was concerned that the community caretaking exception would lead to governmental overreach and an obfuscation of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement.[69] To satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of reasonableness, the court formulated a three-prong balancing test:

First, we must consider the involuntary seizure of an individual whom officers have an objectively reasonable basis for believing is suicidal or otherwise poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others. Second, we must consider the temporary seizure of firearms and associated paraphernalia that police officers have an objectively reasonable basis for thinking such an individual may use in the immediate future to harm himself or others. Third, we must consider the appropriateness of a warrantless entry into an individual’s home when that entry is tailored to the seizure of firearms in furtherance of police officers’ community caretaking responsibilities.[70]

As applied to Caniglia, the First Circuit found that it was reasonable to believe that Edward may commit suicide because he had recently made a statement about his death when tossing the gun on the table.[71] Accordingly, the officers reasonably believed that Edward could harm himself with the gun, and the entry was lawful because it was tailored to seizing a firearm.[72]

By focusing on the reasonableness of the officer’s belief of imminent danger or emergency, and by requiring that the officer’s actions be tailored to meet that emergency, the test espoused in Caniglia closely resembles the requirements of the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment. Thus, because the test established by the First Circuit in Caniglia is reasonable and closely resembles well-recognized exigent circumstances exception, the Caniglia test should be upheld to permit warrantless searches and seizures that occur in private homes.

Additionally, although the Seventh Circuit declined to extend the community caretaking exception to the home, it did uphold an entry and sweep of a home under the exigent circumstances exception.[78] This demonstrates that the same facts may raise both exceptions, but because the Caniglia test is more focused on the home, it is more tailored to avoid unreasonable searches and seizures. The community caretaking exception is a more appropriate test than exigent circumstances for seizures that occur in a home, and it does not offend the exigent circumstances exception. In fact, if the community caretaking exception is not applied to the home, it has the potential to weaken the exigent circumstances exception because the same facts could raise both exceptions.

V. Conclusion

The community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment in Cady is rooted in reasonableness and emphasizes the non-investigative services that law enforcement officers provide to the community. Extending the exception to the home using the Caniglia test promotes objective reasonableness and is only applicable to law enforcement’s non-investigative functions. Further, the situations where courts have upheld the community caretaking exception are analogous to situations where courts have upheld the exigent circumstances exceptions of giving emergency aid or preventing harm. Thus, the application of the Caniglia test and extension of the exception to the home is consistent with Cady and the protections of the Fourth Amendment.


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

[2] See Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011); Chimel v. California, 395 U.S 752 (1969); Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990); Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).

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

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 445–47.

[6] Ray v. Twp. of Warren, 626 F.3d 170 (3d Cir. 2010); Sutterfield v. City of Milwaukee, 751 F.3d 542 (7th Cir. 2014); United States v. Erickson, 75 F.3d 470 (9th Cir. 1996).

[7] United States v. Bute, 43 F.3d 531 (10th Cir. 1994).

[8] United States v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. Williams, 354 F.3d 497 (6th Cir. 2003).

[9] Caniglia v. Strom, 953 F.3d 112 (1st Cir. 2020); United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026 (5th Cir. 1990); United States v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005 (8th Cir. 2006).

[10] Caniglia, 953 F.3d at 124–25.

[11] Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 870 (2020).

[12] Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 435 (1973).

[13] Id. at 436.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 437.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 438.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 438–39.

[23] Id. at 439

[24] Id. at 442.

[25] Id. at 442–43.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 447.

[28] Id. at 442, 445.

[29] Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 235–36 (1968).

[30] Id. at 236.

[31] Cady, 413 U.S. at 449.

[32] Id.

[33] See, e.g., Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 460–61 (2011).

[34] Id.

[35] See Caniglia v. Strom, 953 F.3d 112; United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026; United States v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005 (8th Cir. 2006).

[36] U.S. Const. amend. IV (emphasis added).

[37] See, e.g., King, 563 U.S. 452.

[38] See Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 446–48 (1973); Caniglia, 953 F.3d at 124–25.

[39] See generally Cady, 413 U.S. at 446–48

[40] Id. at 442.

[41] See generally id. See, e.g., Caniglia, 953 F.3d 112; United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026 (5th Cir. 1990); United States v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005 (8th Cir. 2006).

[42] See generally Caniglia, 953 F.3d 112 (1st Cir. 2020); York, 895 F.2d 1026 (5th Cir. 1990); Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005 (8th Cir. 2006).

[43] Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005.

[44] Id. at 1006.

[45] Id.

[46] Id. at 1008.

[47] Id. at 1006.

[48] Id.

[49] Id. at 1007.

[50] Id. at 1008.

[51] Id.

[52] 895 F.2d 1026 (5th Cir.1990).

[53] Id. at 1027.

[54] Id. at 1027–28.

[55] Id. at 1028.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[59] Id.

[60] Id. at 1029–30.

[61] Id.

[62] 953 F.2d 112 (1st Cir. 2020).

[63] Id.

[64] Id. at 120.

[65] Id. at 119–20.

[66] Id. at 120.

[67] Id. at 124.

[68] Id.

[69] See id at 125.

[70] Id. at 124–25.

[71] Id. at 131.

[72] Id. at 120.

[73] See Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973).

[74] Id. at 442.

[75] United States v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005, 1006 (8th Cir. 2006).

[76] United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026, 1027 (5th Cir. 1990).

[77] Caniglia, 953 F.2d at 119.

[78] United States v. Pichany, 687 F.2d 204, 209–10 (7th Cir. 1982).