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SCOTUS disclaims “community caretaking” as a “standalone doctrine”; at least as to the home

Caniglia v. Strom, USSC No. 20-157, 2021 WL 1951784 , May 17, 2021; Scotusblog page (including links to briefs and commentary)

In four quick pages, a unanimous Supreme Court rejects the notion that the police have a “caretaking” duty that “creates a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.” This undoes a lot of law, in Wisconsin and elsewhere; at a minimum we can say that State v. Pinkard, 2010 WI 81, 327 Wis. 2d 346, 785 N.W.2d 592 and State v. Matalonis, 2016 WI 7, 366 Wis. 2d 443, 875 N.W.2d 567, both of which permitted entries to residences on “community caretaker” grounds, are no longer valid. But the brevity of the decision leaves a lot of questions unanswered; and its unanimity (as the concurrences show) obscures real disagreement about just what the Court has decided.

The big question: is there any community caretaker doctrine? Depends who you ask. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973), was the first case to use the phrase “community caretaking”; and it’s popped up only two SCOTUS cases since: Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987), and South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976). All three of these cases involved searches of vehicles, and not just any vehicles: all had been or were being impounded. The Court’s opinion takes special note of this fact, saying “Cady expressly contrasted its treatment of a vehicle already under police control with a search of a car ‘parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.'” The opinion does say that “[w]hat is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes,” which can–though need not–be read as an endorsement of an outside-the-home community caretaker doctrine. But the sentence before that suggests the Court’s earlier uses of the phrase “community caretaking” was simply describing reality, not announcing a warrant exception: it says the “recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that–a recognition that these tasks exists, and not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”

The three concurrences don’t clear matters up. The Chief Justice and Justice Breyer write a single paragraph to point out that the Court has endorsed home entries to give medical assistance for serious injuries or protect those in grave danger. Justice Alito expands on this a bit and identifies various questions he believes the opinion does not address (but that lower courts might once have eagerly put in the “community caretaking” category); he suggests that non-investigatory sorts of situations may require a different Fourth Amendment approach than the ones the Court has prescribed in criminal cases.

He also expressly endorses the idea that a “community caretaking” doctrine just doesn’t exist: that Cady used the phrase “in passing.” He doesn’t even mention automobiles; so it’s clear he doesn’t think the Court has simply carved home entries out of the doctrine.

Justice Kavanaugh concurs in a similar vein, describing various emergency circumstances that he views as likely to justify police entry into the home. He’s a little less clear on whether there remains a community caretaking doctrine applicable to automobiles, saying that “any such standalone community caretaking doctrine was primarily devised for searches of cars, not homes.” “Any such” doing a lot of work here.

So, in all, we either have a community caretaking exception or we do not. All we know for sure is that if such an exception exists, it doesn’t justify home entry. An implication of all the opinions, and the result itself, is that we’re likely to see a lot more litigation of previously-obscure “emergency”-type rationales for official intrusions into the dwelling.

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