The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . .” Although the Fourth Amendment predates the invention of Henry Ford’s famous Model-T by more than a century, today, automobiles fit squarely within the Fourth Amendment’s definition of “effects.” As such, a police officer must obtain a warrant before searching a person’s car, absent some exception justifying the warrantless search.
One such exception is the “community caretaking exception,” which justifies an otherwise unconstitutional warrantless search of an automobile where the search is conducted by law enforcement in an attempt to protect the general public from harm, as opposed to a search conducted during the course of a criminal investigation. In carving out this exception to the warrant requirement, the Supreme Court was willing to permit law enforcement acting as “community caretakers” to search an individual’s vehicle without a warrant because, among other things, the invasion of privacy is relatively minimal compared to the intrusion that occurs when law enforcement decides to invade the inner sanctity of one's home.
As such, a conflict between the circuits has developed over whether the community caretaking exception extends beyond cars to also justify warrantless searches of the home. A case issued by the Southern District of Texas on January 3, 2012 highlights this split:
Although the Supreme Court has carved out a community caretaking exception for searches of vehicles, Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 439, 93 S. Ct. 2523, 37 L. Ed. 2d 706 (1973), "[t]here is some confusion among the circuits as to whether the community caretaking exception set forth in Cady applies to warrantless searches of homes." Ray v. Township of Warren, 626 F.3d 170, 175 (3rd Cir. 2010). See, e.g., US v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005, 1007 (8th Cir. 2006) ("A police officer may enter a residence without a warrant as a community caretaker where the officer has a reasonable belief that an emergency exists requiring his or her attention."); US v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506, 1520-21 (6th Cir. 1996) (finding that precedents suggest a late night disturbance of the peace might present exigent circumstances justifying warrantless searches); US v. Bute, 43 F.3d 531, 535 (10th Cir. 1994) ("We agree with this line of authority holding the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement is applicable only in cases involving automobile searches."); US v. Erickson, 991 F.2d 529, 531 (9th Cir. 1993) ("The fact that a police officer is performing a community caretaking function, however, cannot itself justify a warrantless search of a private residence."). Yet these cases do not simply rely on the Cady community caretaking doctrine; "[t]hey instead apply what appears to be a modified exigent circumstances test, with perhaps a lower threshold for exigency if the officer is acting in a community caretaking role." Ray, 626 F.3d at 177.
In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that law enforcement violated a clearly established law and were therefore not entitled to qualified immunity, the court added,
The Fifth Circuit has not addressed the issue, and Courts of Appeals disagree about whether a community caretaking exception extends to searches of homes. Therefore, the Court cannot conclude that it would have been apparent to an objectively reasonably officer that the search of Harvey's home was in violation of the law. Id. Indeed, from either the Dispatch Notes or the 9-1-1 call itself, an officer could have operated under a reasonable belief that there was an emergency on Harvey's property. (Ex. A to Mot. Dismiss, p. COU 0004; Ex. A to Compl., Transcription of 9/11 Call of 5/16/09.) As a result, the Deputies are entitled to qualified immunity as to Harvey's unreasonable search claim.
Id. at *55.