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.
Three questions addressing the scope of the Fourth Amendment requirements in this situation confronted the litigants:
- Do the police need probable cause to enter the house? Assuming no criminal investigative purpose, do the police need probable that somebody is injured or in need of help or psychiatric intervention? Is reasonable belief enough?
- How imminent need the threat of injury be? If it is truly imminent, the exigent circumstances exception applies. If it is too remote, why not get a search warrant?
- What if it is a social worker and not a police officer who is making the entry? Or an EMT? What if the state agent has no arrest power? Does a social worker need probable cause?
- What if the jurisdiction enacts a policy (like the inventory search policy) that has no criminal investigative purpose, but which empowers police to enter a house if there is an objectively reasonable basis to fear a suicide may occur? Or if there is a reasonable basis to believe that an elderly person is in need of assistance?
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:
- Chief Justice Roberts: What if an elderly woman accepts an invitation to go to her neighbor’s house for dinner but does not show up on time. She is an hour late and she has never been late before. The neighbor calls the police, fearful that the woman is sick or incapacitated. After all, the neighbor explains, she is never late to dinner. Can the police enter the woman’s house? If the answer is no, what about entering the house the next day, 24 hours later, when she has still not appeared or answered her phone? (the plaintiff’s lawyer said those facts do not justify a warrantless entry).
- Justice Thomas: If the police do go in and see the woman lying on the floor with a broken hip, they rescue her and save her life, can she sue them for the illegal entry? (Answer: Yes).
- Justice Breyer: Can the police go into a house if a baby is heard crying for five hours?
- Justice Kavanaugh: There are 65 suicides on average every day in the U.S. by gunshots. Can the police not go into a house to try to prevent a suicide? They don’t have time to decide on the spur of the moment, after receiving a call from a neighbor, whether they have sufficient “cause” to enter. The same with elderly people falling and dying because the police are fearful that they will be sued if they enter the house.
- Justice Barrett: How about a social worker, rather than the police. In a “welfare check” situation, can the local community have a social worker check on the welfare of someone who might have fallen? Do you really want to insist on “probable cause” that somebody needs help? (As opposed to “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed)?
- Chief Justice Roberts: Can the police, in response to a call from a neighbor go to the home of people who are on vacation, climb over a fence into the curtilage of the home to rescue a cat from a tree?
- Justice Barrett: What if the police are walking in the neighborhood and look in the window and see many people not wearing masks (during pandemic)? Can they go in for community caretaking purposes?
- Chief Justice Roberts: The family is away on vacation. It appears to the neighbors that the house has a leak and water is dripping into the room where there is a very expensive original Van Gogh. Can the police enter to save the property?
- Justice Breyer: How imminent must the harm be? If it is really imminent, then “exigent circumstances” is the exception to the warrant requirement that applies. But if it is not imminent, it is “community caretaking” – how “not imminent” can the threat be (in suicide cases, for example) before community caretaking is not a permissible basis for a warrantless entry?
- Justice Sotomayor: In this case, the police went into the house and seized the gun, because of the suicide threat. How long can they keep the gun?