Caniglia v. Strom, No. 20-157 (5/17/2021)

593 U.S. ___(2021).

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court announced the Community Caretaking Function exception to the warrant requirement with respect to a search of an automobile in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). In that case, which involved the arrest of an off-duty police officer for a DUI collision, the officers had reason to believe that the officer may have left his gun in his vehicle.  The vehicle, which had been impounded was by that point unsecured in a tow yard.   Upon searching for the gun, the officers found evidence that this officer had murdered someone.  In upholding the search of the vehicle, the Court recognized that law enforcement had community caretaking authority to search for the unsecured firearm to prevent it from being taken by anyone who might rummage through the unsecured vehicle.

In a 9-0 decision, the Court has now held that this Community Caretaking exception does not apply to the entry of a home and the seizure of firearms, after Mr. Caniglia, who was reportedly suicidal had agreed to go to the hospital for an evaluation as long as officers did not seize his firearms.

The Court recited the underlying facts as follows:

During an argument with his wife at their Rhode Island home, Edward Caniglia (petitioner) retrieved a handgun from the bedroom, put it on the dining room table, and asked his wife to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” She declined and instead left to spend the night at a hotel. The next morning, when the petitioner’s wife discovered that she could not reach him by telephone, she called the police (respondents) to request a welfare check.

[Police officers] accompanied [Caniglia’s] wife to the home, where they encountered [Caniglia] on the porch. [Caniglia} spoke with respondents and confirmed his wife’s account of the argument, but denied that he was suicidal. [The officers], however, thought that [Caniglia] posed a risk to himself or others. They called an ambulance, and [Caniglia} agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation— but only after [officers] allegedly promised not to confiscate his firearms. Once the ambulance had taken [Caniglia] away, however, [the officers] seized the weapons. Guided by [Caniglia’s] wife—whom they allegedly misinformed about his wishes—[officers] entered the home and took two handguns.

As a result of this entry and the seizure of the handguns,  Mr. Caniglia filed a lawsuit against the officers claiming that both the entry and the seizure violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The Federal District Court of Rhode Island and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit both found that the search that occurred here fell withing the “community caretaking exception” to the warrant requirement.

The Supreme Court noted that the First Circuit simply applied the “community caretaking exception” that had only previously applied to cars and did not consider “whether anyone consented” to the police officers’ actions; whether the officers’ actions “were justified by exigent circumstances;” or “whether any state law permitted this kind of mental-health intervention.”

The Court went on to note that there are several exceptions to the warrant requirement including: the need to render emergency aid or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.  The Court also noted that if a private citizen would have authority to enter, then of course an officer would have the same authority, for example, the Amazon delivery person can enter curtilage and approach the delivery point, thus an officer could also access this point of the property.

The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Thomas simply held that the Community Caretaking exception, announced in Cady, did not apply to homes.

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Breyer pointed out that nothing in the Court’s opinion changed prior decisions which authorized officers to make an exigent entry without a warrant when “there is a need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury” or where “there was an objectively reasonable basis for believing that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger.”

In a concurring opinion by Justice Alito, it was pointed out that law enforcement does have authority over several types of non-criminal cases that may involve seizure of the person and seizure of property.   Justice Alito provided some examples and noted that the Court was not answering these types of cases:

Justice Alito noted that the Court has not and was not here weighing in on the authority of law enforcement to conduct “short-term seizures for the purpose of ascertaining whether a person presents an imminent risk of suicide.”

Justice Alito further noted that this case had implications related to “red flag laws” passed in some states that allow law enforcement to “seize guns pursuant to a court order to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons.”  Justice Alito made clear that the decision, in this case, did not address the issue of “red flag” laws.

Justice Alito provided one more common law enforcement example which officers routinely face, specifically the call that an elderly person has not been seen or has failed to show up for some event and cannot be contacted.  Justice Alito noted that when confronted with this hypothetical, Mr. Caniglia’s attorney indicated that the police would not be allowed to make an entry in such a case.  Justice Alito made clear that the Court’s precedents did not directly address this type of case and suggested that perhaps states should pass statutes allowing law enforcement to obtain a warrant for checking medical needs but in the meantime courts would simply look to whether the entry was reasonable.

Justice Alito closed making clear that the Court’s decision is limited to a rejection of “the broad ‘community caretaking’ theory on which the decision below was based. The Court’s decision goes no further, and on that understanding, I join the opinion in full.


This is a very limited decision holding that the Community Caretaking exception does not apply to homes. Remember that Community Caretaking, in accord with Cady was a non-criminal search and seizure of a dangerous item in an unlocked vehicle.  Here, Mr. Caniglia was gone from the residence, thus the time element (i.e. no time to get a warrant-which is recognized in all of the exceptions, is not in play).

The suggestion that states may pass statutes allowing for a non-criminal seizure warrant in cases like these is a recognition that search and seizure warrants are generally limited to criminal evidence thus there may be no mechanism to get a warrant under circumstances where no criminal act is contemplated.

A number of justices wrote concurring opinions making clear that was the only restriction created by this decision and that the various exigent entry exceptions were still intact.

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