The US Supreme Court ruled on Monday that there is no standalone “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment that would allow police to conduct a warrantless search and seizure of a person’s home as part of a welfare check.
This case, Caniglia v. Strom, involved a welfare check, which led to police searching and seizing the petitioner’s guns against his wishes. Officers used false pretext to gain his wife’s consent, then claimed that such warrantless searches and seizures were permissible under the “community caretaking” doctrine established in Cady v. Dombrowski. The decision in Cady allowed police to search an impounded car for weapons because this kind of search was incidental to their caretaking duties like maintaining public highways and responding to accidents.
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the government’s claim that the Cady exception extended to searches and seizures within the home that are justified by the need to protect the public. But Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority with three concurrences, overturned this application of the exception. He said that the home is given significantly more constitutional protection than the car, which the Cady decision repeatedly acknowledges. This “unmistakable distinction” suggests that “what is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.”
In his concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito raised several issues that this opinion did not touch. In particular, he noted that red flag laws, which allow police to “seize guns pursuant to a court order to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons,” may be challenged under the court’s ruling in this case. These laws have passed in several states as a way to prevent gun violence in abusive domestic situations.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurrence clarified that police could still enter a person’s home without a warrant if they were “reasonably trying to prevent a potential suicide or … help[ing] an elderly person who has been out of contact and may have fallen and suffered a serious injury.”