SCOTUS Says “Community Caretaking Function” Not an Exception to Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement

In 1973, the US Supreme decided a case called Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 US 433 (Supreme Court 1973). In Cady, an off-duty Chicago policeman, Chester J. Dombrowski, was arrested by local Wisconsin police on a charge of drunk driving following a one-car accident in which Dombrowski injured himself and damaged his rented 1967 Thunderbird. The local police had the Thunderbird towed from the scene of the accident to a private garage where it was left outside and unguarded. In the meantime, Dombrowski was arrested and charged with drunk driving and was also taken to a local hospital for treatment. At the scene, the local police searched the interior of the Thunderbird, allegedly looking for Dombrowski’s service revolver which all Chicago policemen were required to carry with them at all times. The revolver was not located during the initial search.

Two or three hours later, one of the arresting officers drove to the garage and, without a search warrant or Dombrowski’s consent, conducted a thorough search of the car including opening and searching the locked trunk. The alleged purpose of the search was to find Dombrowski’s service revolver, which was again not located. However, the officer located and took possession of various blood-covered items found in the trunk which eventually linked Dombrowsik to the murder of a local man.

Challenging the Lawfulness of the Seizure

Dombrowski challenged the lawfulness of the seizure of the 1967 Thunderbird and its search. In brief, the Supreme Court upheld the search and seizure under what has since been called the “community caretaking” exception. As the court explained:

“Local police officers, unlike federal officers, frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”

On this theory, the Supreme Court held that seizure of the Thunderbird was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Further, the Supreme Court held that the initial search of the Thunderbird was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. These two parts of Cady have not been too controversial. It is facially reasonable, after all, for law enforcement to have a disabled car towed from the public roads where it might present a danger to other drivers. In fact, one could argue that the Thunderbird was not even “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes since it was moved to the parking lot of a privately-owned repair shop.

However, the Cady court went further and held that the subsequent warrantless search of the car and trunk — two hours after impound — was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This part of Cady has proved very controversial since, by the time of the second search, Dombrowski was in the hospital, there was no threat that evidence would be lost or destroyed, there were no other emergency conditions and there was certainly time to seek a warrant from a local judge. But, controversial or not, Cady has been “good law” for about 50 years.

The Supreme Court Revisits Cady in 2021

But, recently, the Supreme Court revisited Cady in the case of Caniglia v. Strom, Case No. 20–157 (May 17, 2021). In Caniglia, the court either “clarified” or scaled-back Cady holding that law enforcement’s role in “community caretaking” was not grounds for a warrantless search for and seizure of weapons in a person’s home.

As reported in the case, Edward Caniglia was having an argument with his wife. During the argument, he placed a handgun on the dining room table and asked his wife to “shoot [him] and get it over with.” Caniglia’s wife declined and, instead, left for the night. The next morning, she called her husband, but was unable to reach him. She called the police and asked them to conduct a “wellness check.” She accompanied the officers. They found Caniglia on the porch of the home. The officers eventually convinced Caniglia to go to the local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and he was put in an ambulance. Caniglia agreed to go on the condition that the officers would not confiscate his firearms that he had in the home.

But once Caniglia left in the ambulance, without a warrant, the officers searched the home, located and seized his firearms.

Caniglia eventually sued, claiming that the officers had entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed. The court held that neither the holding nor the logic of Cady justified such a warrantless search and seizure in Caniglia’s circumstances. The court distinguished Cady on the ground that Caniglia’s case involved search of his home rather than an impounded vehicle. The court stated plainly that searches of homes and vehicles are constitutionally different. The Fourth Amendment’s protections are the strongest where a person’s home is involved.

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