by Don Samuel
Can the police go into a house without a warrant, not to investigate a crime, but to determine if somebody is in need of assistance? Assume there is not probable cause to believe that someone is in need of emergency/immediate assistance (as in the exigent circumstances cases, such as Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 126 S. Ct. 1943 (2006)).
The issue arises in the context of what is known as the “community caretaking function” exception to the search warrant requirement, which was first recognized in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973), a case in which the Court described certain functions of the police that have nothing to do with the detection or investigation of crimes. In Cady, the defendant, a police officer, was in a serious car accident and his car was towed to a garage. The police later went to the garage to secure the officer’s weapon that they believed was left in the vehicle. While looking through the vehicle, evidence of a murder was discovered. The Supreme Court held that the “caretaking” search was not unreasonable and did not require the police to secure a search warrant.
In Coniglia v. Strom, the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether the community caretaking exception applies to a home. Coniglia was possibly suicidal. The police went to his house and after talking with him on the front porch, had him transferred to a mental health facility. They later entered his house to retrieve guns that they feared he might use to harm himself when he was released. He sued for the warrantless entry into his house and seizure of his guns.
Four questions addressing the scope of the Fourth Amendment requirements in this situation confronted the litigants:
The oral argument (characteristically) also tested the resolve of the lawyers to justify when, exactly, it was ok to enter a house in these circumstances: