Caniglia v. Strom - The Supreme Court Revisits the Community Caretaking Doctrine

by Jack E. Call, Retired Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail:

In Cady v. Dombrowski (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the warrantless search of Dombrowski’s automobile by the police in West Bend, Wisconsin.[1]  Dombrowski was a Chicago police officer who was passing through West Bend when his car became disabled.  He left the car at his brother’s house, and the brother drove him back to Chicago.  Dombrowski rented a car the next day and drove back to West Bend.  That evening, he drank excessively at local taverns and afterwards was involved in a car accident with the rented vehicle.  After being arrest for drunk driving, Dombrowski was taken to a local hospital, where he unexpectedly lapsed into a coma.  Officers on West Bend police force were aware that Chicago police officers were required to carry their service revolvers with them at all times.  Dombrowski’s service revolver was not on his person when he was brought to the hospital.  The West Bend police were unable to inquire about the revolver’s whereabouts from Dombrowski, since he was unconscious.

The West Bend police were concerned that the revolver might fall into the wrong hands, so they went to Dombrowski’s impounded rental vehicle.  During their search of the vehicle for the service revolver (without a warrant) they discovered evidence in the car that linked Dombrowski to a murder in Chicago.  At the time of the vehicle search, the West Bend police had no reason to believe that Dombrowski was involved in a murder, so there was no reason to think that the police searched Dombrowski’s car hoping to find evidence of a crime.

The Supreme Court allowed the warrantless search of the rental vehicle on the basis that the police were not engaged in the investigation of any criminal activity when they searched it.  Instead, the Court indicated that the police were doing what they often do – taking action to insure the welfare of the community.  This type of activity has come to be referred to as the community caretaking function of the police.

Although the Cady case was decided nearly fifty years ago, the Court has had very little to say about the community caretaker function since.  In 1976, the Court held in South Dakota v. Opperman[2] that the police could conduct a warrantless inventory of the contents of a vehicle that the police had lawfully impounded.  In reaching this holding, the Court referenced Cady when it indicated that the police often take motor vehicles into police custody in the “interests of public safety.”  This is about the extent of the Court’s mentioning of Cady.

Interestingly, the Court decided a case in 2006 in which it might have mentioned the community caretaking function but did not.  In Brigham City v. Stuart[3], the police responded to a report of a loud early morning party at a residence.  When the police arrived on the scene, they observed through a screen door an altercation in the kitchen of the residence involving a juvenile and several adult males.  They saw the juvenile strike one of the adults with his fist, apparently drawing blood.  The police entered the kitchen, restored order, and arrested the adults on several charges.  In rejecting the defendants’ argument that the police lacked authority under the 4th Amendment to enter the house without a warrant because all they had observed was the commission of a minor offense (i.e., a simple assault),[4] the Court held that the police “had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning.”  These reasonable beliefs justified a warrantless entry of the house.

The Court indicated that “the role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties.”  The Court could have described this kind of action as a community caretaking activity, but it did not.  Instead, it appeared to provide support for an “emergency aid” exception the requirement of a warrant. (We will have more to say about Brigham City later).

In the 2020-21 term of the Court, it finally returned to the community caretaking function when it decided Caniglia v. Strom.[5]  Caniglia and his wife had an argument that concluded with Caniglia taking out a handgun, placing it on a dining room table, and asking his wife to “shoot [him] and get it over with.”  The wife left at that point and spent the evening at a hotel.  The next morning, she attempted to reach her husband on the phone without success, so she called the police and asked them to make a welfare check on her husband.  They went to Caniglia’s home with his wife.  When they encountered Caniglia on the porch, they persuaded him to go to the hospital for a psychiatric examination.  Caniglia agreed to this request by the police on the condition they would not confiscate his weapons.  After Caniglia left for the hospital, the police entered his home, where they located and seized his weapons.  Caniglia later sued the officers for violating his 4th Amendment rights by entering his home without a warrant and without his consent.  The police relied on Cady and the community caretaking function as justification for their actions.

The Court held unanimously that the community caretaking function did not justify the warrantless entry of Caniglia’s home.  The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Thomas, stressed that after Caniglia had left for the hospital, his weapons no longer posed a danger to him.  The Court also emphasized that Cady involved an intrusion into a car, where the expectation of privacy is much reduced.  Thus, the Court held that the police may not enter a home without a warrant in the absence of some extenuating circumstance.  Importantly, the Court indicated that the community caretaker doctrine does not create “a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.”  The all-important question then is what extenuating circumstances would justify such a warrantless entry?

Not surprisingly perhaps, the Court did not offer much guidance on this important question.  The Court typically decides issues incrementally – one issue at a time.  Caniglia did not present an extenuating circumstance that the Court was prepared to recognize (and presumably elaborate on).  However, Justices Alito and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions that may provide some insight into where the Court might view as “extenuating circumstances.”[6]

Any discussion of extenuating circumstances should begin with the recognition that the Court has long recognized an exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.  Under this exception, the police may enter a home without a warrant to prevent the destruction of evidence[7] or to prevent the escape of a suspect.[8]  So exigent circumstances clearly present an extenuating circumstance.  But what other extenuating circumstances might there be?

The concurring opinions of Alito and Kavanaugh suggest that the exigent circumstances doctrine also extends to emergency aid situations.  Brigham City presented such a case, and, as we have seen, the Court permitted the warrantless home entry in that case.  Alito and Kavanaugh explore other potential situations involving emergency aid.  Alito mentions an intriguing situation raised by Roberts during oral argument.  Roberts asked whether the police could make a warrantless entry of the home of an elderly woman based on a call from one of her neighbors that she had been two hours late for a dinner engagement (and the woman was known for her punctuality), she had not been observed leaving her home, she was not answering her phone, and the neighbors had been unable to reach any of her relatives.  The defendant’s lawyer indicated in response to the Chief Justice’s hypothetical that the police would indeed need a warrant, even if 24 hours had passed without contact with the elderly woman.  Justice Alito makes it clear that neither the decision in Caniglia nor any other prior decision of the Court provides an answer to the question of whether the police need a warrant to enter the woman’s home, but the tone of his opinion seems to suggest that he would favor permitting the warrantless entry.

Justice Kavanaugh goes a step further, by positing two cases where he clearly thinks an extenuating circumstance exists.  He takes the position that “[i]f someone is at risk of serious harm and it is reasonable for officers to intervene now, that is enough for the officers to enter.”  In the first example, a woman calls a hotline and indicates she wants to end her life and has firearms in her house to enable her to do so.  The hotline operator calls the police, who are able to locate the woman’s address.  They drive to her home and receive no response when they knock on her door.  Kavanaugh indicates that there is no question about the authority of the police to enter her home without a warrant to ensure her safety.

In the second example provided by Kavanaugh, an elderly man who never misses church does not attend services one Sunday morning.  Repeated calls to his home go unanswered, so a concerned relative calls the police and requests a wellness check.  The police go to the man’s house, where they knock on the door and receive no answer.  Kavanaugh indicates that the police may enter without a warrant.

In both cases, Kavanaugh indicates that the police are justified in making warrantless entries of the home because they “have an ‘objectively reasonable basis’ for believing that an occupant is ‘seriously injured or threatened with such injury’.”  He cites Brigham City in support of this conclusion.

Whether at least four other Justices would agree with Kavanaugh’s conclusions in these two hypotheticals is unclear, of course.  The first hypothetical presents an easier case than the second, although Kavanaugh does not make this distinction.  It is also noteworthy that no other Justice chose to join his concurring opinion, not even Justice Alito.  Commentators love to speculate on the significance of such matters, but of course, in the end it is simply that – speculation.

What Caniglia makes clear is that the community caretaker doctrine does not provide an independent basis for making a warrantless entry of a home.  The police will have to rely on some other justification for dispensing with a warrant.

At least one thoughtful observer of the proper functioning of law enforcement in a free society has noted that Caniglia also raises an interesting policy, as opposed to legal, issue.  Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, has written a very thought-provoking analysis of Caniglia.[9]  One of the questions he raises is why the police are involved in non-law enforcement situations like this in the first place.  Slobogin notes that, while the evidence on this point is limited, it appears that something like 10-20 percent of all calls to the police involve mental health crises.  Of critical significance is that nearly a quarter of the people killed by police officers in recent years have been persons with mental illnesses.

Why have the police been involved in cases like this at all?  Would a team of mental health professionals be a more appropriate group to handle this situation?  Slobogin points out that some jurisdictions have developed crisis intervention teams (CITs) to deal with these kinds of situations.  The teams may not include law enforcement officers, but when they do, the officers have typically received special training to equip them to deal with situations that are not traditional law enforcement situations.  A recent study of CITS suggested that they resulted in the diversion of more people with mental health problems from the criminal justice system into treatment programs.  Unfortunately though, the study also suggested that the use of CITs did not reduce the number of people killed or injured during the situations handled by the CITs.[10]  Nevertheless, the CIT concept seems worth consideration by larger police departments, at least, that possess the resources to assemble and train crisis intervention teams.

Caniglia v. Strom is an important decision.  It clarifies the role of the community caretaking doctrine in the context of police intrusions into the home by making the doctrine irrelevant in those situations.  However, the Court still has much work to do in this area.  While we know that traditional exigent circumstances will justify warrantless entries into the home by the police and that exigent circumstances include emergency aid situations, the Court needs to clarify what other extenuating circumstances will also justify such entries.


[1] 413 U.S. 433 (1973).

[2] 428 U.S. 364 (1976).

[3] 547 U.S. 398 (2006).

[4] The defendants’ argument relied on the Court’s earlier decision in Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984), where the Court held that the police could not enter Welsh’s home without a warrant, even though they were in “hot pursuit” of Welsh for driving while under the influence.  The Court indicated that the DUI offense (which was a non-criminal offense in Wisconsin at the time) was not a serious enough offense to justify a warrantless intrusion into a home.

[5] 593 U.S. ____ (2021).

[6] Chief Justice Roberts also wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Breyer.  This one-paragraph opinion simply indicated that the Caniglia opinion should not be understood as casting any doubt on the continued vitality of the Brigham City decision, where Roberts wrote the Court’s opinion.

[7] See, for example, Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011).

[8] See, for example, United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976).

[9] Christopher Slobogin, “POLICING CONSTITUTIONALLY: Police as Community Caretakers: Caniglia v. Strom,” 2020-2021 Cato Sup. Ct. Review, p. 191.

[10] Michael Rogers, Dale E. McNiel, & Renee L. Binder, “Effectiveness of Crisis Intervention Programs,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry & Law, Vol. 47, p. 1 (2019).