The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Current Fourth Amendment doctrine hinges on “reasonableness”: a totality-of-the-circumstances balancing test that renders the doctrine “incoherent, unpredictable, and in fundamental need of repair.”
In a previous blog post, we posited that the answer to this doctrinal incoherence is in the text of the Fourth Amendment itself, in the right “to be secure.” At the Founding, “secure” meant “protected” or “free from fear.” By invoking this concept in the Fourth Amendment, the Framers were ratifying the principle that “a man’s house [is] his castle.” Under the Amendment, as in a castle, the people would be free to exclude unreasonable government intrusions on their property. And more, they would enjoy protection against potential arbitrary invasions akin to those conducted under the reviled general warrants and writs of assistance that so incited the Framers.
This term, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to apply the original meaning of the right “to be secure” to clarify the scope of the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
In Caniglia v. Strom, Edward and Kim Caniglia, husband and wife, had a disagreement in their Rhode Island home. Mr. Caniglia retrieved his unloaded handgun and asked “why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?” Mrs. Caniglia left and spent the night in a motel. The next morning, Mrs. Caniglia called the police to escort her home. Police believed Mr. Caniglia could be a threat to himself so they brought him in for a psychiatric evaluation, which he agreed to only after police promised not to take his handguns. After Mr. Caniglia was admitted to the hospital—and despite their promise—the officers entered the home and seized the guns, which they returned when Mr. Caniglia sued.
The officers invoked the “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement to justify their warrantless entry of Mr. Caniglia’s home.
That exception stems from Cady v. Dombrowski, a case involving a crashed car that police had towed to a private garage and later searched, finding a revolver. The warrantless vehicle search was upheld because (at least according to the majority) police had control of the car and a search was necessary to remove potential safety threats.
Since Cady, the Court has only applied the community caretaking exception to vehicles. But in Caniglia, the police seek to extend this exception into homes.
So far, they’ve succeeded. The First Circuit held that community caretaking is a “catchall” exception to the warrant requirement anytime police perform duties unrelated to law enforcement. Under the circuit court’s logic, whenever police encounter a “transient hazard” on private property, they may enter without a warrant so long as the search is unrelated to law enforcement. But the court did not define “transient hazard,” empowering officers with broad discretion to enter people’s homes.
As the Institute for Justice argues in a recent amicus brief, such broad discretion to conduct warrantless searches undermines the people’s right to be secure in their homes. There’s a reason the Fourth Amendment guarantees robust warrant protections with only a few “narrow and well-delineated” exceptions: requiring police to get a warrant before bursting into our homes protects us (and police, for that matter) from harm and ensures that we need not live in constant fear of arbitrary intrusions. Expanding the community caretaking exception to the home, and therefore allowing police to enter homes without a warrant for any “transient hazard” unrelated to law enforcement, would render the warrant requirement a nullity.
The Court should reject that approach and confine the community caretaking exception to its proper scope: the removal of disabled vehicles from public roads and inventory searches of those vehicles to remove potential safety threats. Cabining the exception in this way preserves both its limited purpose and the security that the Fourth Amendment was enacted to protect.
For too long the Court has ignored the actual right enshrined in the text of the Fourth Amendment—the right to be secure—instead focusing narrowly on “persons, houses, papers, and effects” and the unmoored “reasonableness” of invading them. Expressly grounding Fourth Amendment jurisprudence in the right “to be secure” would anchor Fourth Amendment doctrine to its purpose. This connects the Amendment’s protections for property rights with the prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures and informs the protective scope of both.
Caniglia provides just one example of how a security-based approach to the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness inquiry can help clarify the Court’s jurisprudence. The Court should broadly embrace the textual right “to be secure” in ways that will strengthen property rights for all Americans consistent with the original understanding of the Fourth Amendment. For now, though, cases like Caniglia and Lange v. California are a great place to start.