The United States Supreme Court has recently ruled that the community caretaker exception to the search warrant requirement does not apply to a person’s home. The name of the case is Caniglia v. Strom, and in a unanimous opinion the Court found that guns seized by the police after entering a home without a warrant were not admissible in evidence on the basis of the community caretaker exception.
The Caniglia case involved a married couple who had been arguing in their residence. During the fight the husband grabbed his gun and told his wife to shoot him. The wife took possession of the gun, and put it away, hiding the ammunition. She later left the house to stay at a hotel, and because she was worried that her husband might suicide, she called the police. The wife then met the police back at their home where the husband had remained. The police instructed the wife to stay in the car as they interviewed the husband.
The police believed that the husband posed a danger to himself and called for an ambulance to take him for a psychiatric evaluation. He claimed the police agreed that if he went to the hospital, they would not take his guns whereas the police claimed he consented to a search of his home. The wife, believing the officers that her husband had consented, then guided the police to where the guns were inside the home, and the police took possession of them. No arrest was made, and no charges were brought against the husband. The guns were eventually returned, but the Caniglia’s filed a lawsuit, nevertheless, claiming a violation of Section 1983 under the Second, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In the lawsuit the Caniglia’s sought money damages as well as injunctive and declaratory relief.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution applies to search and seizure and is from where the warrant requirement derives. Caniglia claimed that when his weapons were seized his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the seizure of his guns was unreasonable. In response the government claimed that the officers’ warrantless search and gun seizure was “objectively reasonable.” The government relied on Cady v. Dombrowski a prior case involving a search of a motor vehicle, a potential drunk driver, and guns. The Cady case recognized the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.
The Caniglia case recognizes the different “expectation of privacy” between a person’s home and a person’s car. Because we have the highest expectation of privacy in our home, warrantless searches of the home will be most heavily scrutinized. Also, unlike homes, cars are mobile, which also impacts the analysis because mobile evidence could be relocated or destroyed by the time a warrant is obtained. Additionally, because a person has the highest expectation of privacy in their home, the Fourth Amendment analysis begins with the assumption that a warrantless search of the home is per se unreasonable.
The Michigan drunk driving defense lawyers at the Barone Defense Firm have argued dozens of cases involving the community caretaking exception. Some of these cases involved scenarios where a driver pulled over to “sleep it off.” In these cases, the police claimed to be checking on the driver’s health and safety. Other cases involved entry of a person’s home and in these cases the police are typically investigating an accident or an abandoned vehicle, and when arriving at the home corresponding to the vehicle registration, enter it without a warrant, again, claiming community caretaker. The Caniglia case has changed the way these cases will be viewed in the future and might be considered a victory for the integrity of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.