The Need for Clarity in the Community Caretaking Exception to the Fourth Amendment  By Trent Dressen

The Need for Clarity in the Community Caretaking Exception to the Fourth Amendment

 By Trent Dressen

The community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment entered American jurisprudence with a whisper and has evolved into an unintelligible scream. The Supreme Court should sort out the noise to ensure effective law enforcement action and protection of Fourth Amendment rights.

The community caretaking exception can be traced back to Cady v. Dombrowski.[i] In 1969, Chester Dombrowski, a Chicago police officer, drove a car that he had rented off the road in West Bend, Wisconsin.[ii] Dombrowski appeared to be intoxicated and was arrested for drunk driving.[iii] Wisconsin authorities, under the impression that Chicago officers were required to keep their service revolver on them at all times, searched the vehicle in an attempt to locate the revolver.[iv] The search yielded evidence that led to Dombrowski’s conviction of murder.[v]

The Supreme Court held that the search was constitutional.[vi] It reached this conclusion by expounding on the “reasonableness” standard as stated in the Fourth Amendment.[vii] Furthermore, it found the search to be reasonable because it was done in a vehicle, which was in a location that was vulnerable to intruders, and was completed as a community caretaking function – totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.[viii]

The Supreme Court has never explored the implications of Cady outside of automobiles or in other context where police officers are acting as community caretakers.[ix] Four circuits have adopted the community caretaking exception, and limited it to the context of automobiles.[x] Three circuits have expanded the scope of the exception to include homes.[xi] Meanwhile, the remaining circuits have remained silent or chosen to punt when the opportunity arises.[xii] Additionally, several state courts have cited the exception in opinions.[xiii] Wisconsin, one of the states to adopt the exception, has even allowed for officers to have a motivation based in police investigation, so long as the caretaking motive is “paramount.”[xiv]

The responsibilities of local police officers extend far beyond simply enforcing criminal law.[xv] Local authorities respond to medical emergencies, help lost children locate their parents, or check on the elderly.[xvi] As a former police officer of five years, I can confirm having performed each of these functions countless times and also performing several more that do not fall under the purview of criminal investigation. I wholeheartedly agree with Herman Goldstein when he said, “The total range of police responsibilities is extraordinarily broad….Anyone attempting to construct a workable definition of the police role will typically come away with old images shattered and new-found appreciation for the intricacies of police work.”[xvii]

Considering the broad scope of police responsibility, and the amount of interactions that take place between citizens and police officers under the community caretaking umbrella, it is definitely a legal principle worthy of the Supreme Court’s attention as it has not been meaningfully revisited since 1973.[xviii] The circuit split mentioned above further adds to the need for clarification. Moreover, officers in the states where the community caretaking exception has not been established, through the circuit or state court, are left frequently confronting these situations without a standard by which to gauge their conduct.[xix] Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, citizens are left without knowing how to firmly protect their Fourth Amendment rights.[xx]

The Supreme Court has successfully revisited legal principles that it had established in the past.[xxi] In Gant, the Court limited searches of automobiles, when conducted incident to lawful custodial arrest, to circumstances where the officer can demonstrate a continuing threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest.[xxii] Previously, the search incident to arrest had become a hardline rule in the wake of two Supreme Court rulings.[xxiii] Over time, officers began abusing the rule, and the Supreme Court stepped in to establish the boundary.[xxiv] At the time the Gant opinion was issued, I was a police officer in Salt Lake City, Utah. The ruling had an immediate impact on our police work. My fellow officers and I were promptly trained on the new ruling. Afterward, we knew any search of an automobile incident to arrest would have to be accompanied by objective reason, and would no longer be allowed as a per se rule.

In comparison, the baseline for the community caretaking exception was established over 40 years ago.[xxv] Modern day courts have gone so far as to further define that baseline, ensuring that law enforcement do not take advantage of the exception where the Court’s original rationale does not support the search.[xxvi]  However, the outer edge of the exception is muddy and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, if it exists at all.[xxvii] Law enforcement officials and citizens alike would benefit from the Supreme Court clearing things up.

[i]   Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973).

[ii]   Id.

[iii]   Id.

[iv]   Id.

[v]   Id. at 448.

[vi]   Id. at 434.

[vii]   Id. at 441.

[viii]   Id. at 441, 448.

[ix]   Debra Livingston, Police, Community Caretaking, and the Fourth Amendment, 1998 U. Chi. Legal F. 261, 299   (1998).

[x]  Gregory T. Helding, Stop Hammering Fourth Amendment Rights: Reshaping the Community Caretaking Exception with the Physical Intrusion Standard. 97 Marq. L. Rev. 123, 126 (2013).

[xi]  Id. at 127.

[xii]  Id.

[xiii]  See, e.g., U.S. v. McGough, 412 F.3d 1232 (2005) (holding that even if the community caretaking exception did exist, it would not apply in the circumstances of the case).

[xiv]  Helding, supra note 10 at 143-48.

[xv]  Livingston, supra note 9 at 261.

[xvi]  Id.

[xvii]  Id.

[xviii]  Cady, 413 433.

[xix]  Harry Stevens, Salt Lake City Police Department Clears Officers Who Shot Dog, The Salt Lake Tribune (Nov. 18, 2014, 8:00 PM),

[xx]  Id.

[xxi]  See, e.g., Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009) (revisiting search incident to arrest).

[xxii]  Id.

[xxiii]  New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) (holding that an officer may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle after making a lawful custodial arrest of an occupant); Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004) (holding that an officer may search the passenger compartment contemporaneous to arrest, even when the officer does not make contact until arrestee has left vehicle).

[xxiv]  Cady, 413 433.

[xxv]  Id.

[xxvi] See, e.g, State v. Gonzaels, 236 P.3d 834 (Or. Ct. App. 2010) (holding that the community caretaking exception does not apply where police searched a vehicle that was parked in the defendant’s own driveway).

[xxvii] Helding, supra note 10 at 127.


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