The United States Supreme Court has recently taken up the issue of whether police may search a person’s home without first obtaining a warrant under the community caretaking exception to obtain a firearm.
The Role of the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrantless searches are, per se, unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject only to a few exceptions. Exceptions to the warrant requirement include, among others:
- the plain view doctrine;
- searches incident to arrest;
- exigent circumstances; and
The Community Caretake Exception
Another exception, which has been traditionally limited to warrantless searches of vehicles, is the community caretaker exception.
The community caretaker function is an exception to the warrant requirement that covers warrantless seizure of evidence while officers are performing “community caretaker functions.” This includes caretaking activities performed by officers that are “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”
The Community Caretaker Exception in Practice
In the case before the Supreme Court, a husband and wife were fighting, and the husband retrieved an unloaded firearm and placed it on the table and made a comment to the effect of "Shoot me now and get it over with."
The wife left the residence and went and stayed at a hotel for the night. The following day, the wife attempted to contact her husband, who did not answer. The wife then contacted the police via a non-emergency phone number and informed the police of her husband’s prior comment.
The police went to the residence, knocked on the door, and the husband met them at the door. The husband agreed he made the statement and voluntarily went to be evaluated. He was released later that same day. While the husband was away from his house, the police entered the residence and seized the firearm. The husband made several efforts to obtain his firearm back from the police, who refused, which ultimately initiated a 1983 (civil lawsuit based on constitutional violation) action against the officers.
The concern is that the exception will be used as a guise to expand police searches. In modern practice, the community caretaker exception is most commonly seen in DUI investigations; this would be the first case applied to the home.
As a professional with several years of experience working in the field of criminal defense law, it is my professional belief that the United States Supreme Court will overrule the lower court and not extend the community caretaker exception to the heightened protections we are guaranteed in our homes.