Caniglia v. Strom

LII note: the oral arguments in Caniglia v. Strom are now available from Oyez. The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Caniglia v. Strom .


Does the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement apply to searches of the home?

Oral argument: 
March 24, 2021

This case asks the United States Supreme Court to determine whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home. The community caretaking exception allows for the warrantless seizure of evidence that police find while fulfilling their community caretaker role, which is unrelated to the “detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence” of criminal activity. Petitioner Edward Caniglia argues that this exception applies only to vehicular searches and seizures, given that the Fourth Amendment affords significantly greater protection to the home over automobiles. Respondents, including the City of Cranston, the police department, and city officials, counter that the community caretaking doctrine applies to the home based on the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness analysis, which permits warrantless searches and seizures when community safety interests outweigh privacy interests. The outcome of this case will affect the balance between privacy concerns and public safety concerns. The outcome will also affect police incentives in exercising their role as community caretakers.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home.


On August 20, 2015, Petitioner Edward A. Caniglia (“Caniglia”) was at home with his wife, Kim Caniglia (“Mrs. Caniglia”), at their residence in Cranston, Rhode Island. Caniglia v. Strom at 118–19. A marital conflict ensued between the couple, eventually leading Caniglia to fetch a handgun from a bedroom. Id. at 119. Caniglia threw the gun on the dining room table and asked Mrs. Caniglia to shoot him. Id. While the record contains conflicting evidence about whether Mrs. Caniglia said that the gun was loaded or unloaded, Mrs. Caniglia was clearly worried about Caniglia’s mental state. Id. Therefore, Mrs. Caniglia put the gun away and hid the magazine while Caniglia went for “a ride” after the fight. Id. Mrs. Caniglia also packed a bag to stay at a hotel if Caniglia was still agitated when he came back home. Id. When Caniglia returned, conflict between the couple began again. Id. Mrs. Caniglia decided to stay the night at a nearby hotel. Id. At the hotel that night, Mrs. Caniglia spoke to Caniglia on the phone, but he still sounded upset and angry. Id.

When Mrs. Caniglia was unable to contact Caniglia the next morning, she worried that Caniglia had harmed himself or committed suicide. Id. Mrs. Caniglia decided to call a non-emergency line for the Cranston Police Department and spoke with Officer Mastrati about the previous night’s argument, Caniglia’s behavior, and the gun. Id. Mrs. Caniglia told Officer Mastrati that she did not worry for her own safety but did worry for her husband’s safety and for what she might discover at their home. Id. Officer Mastrati then called Caniglia, and Caniglia agreed to meet with the police. Id. Four officers met with Caniglia outside his house while Mrs. Caniglia stayed in her car. Id. The police officers included ranking officer Sergeant Barth and Officers Mastrati, Russell, and Smith. Id. While Officers Mastrati and Russell determined that Caniglia seemed “normal,” “calm,” and “cooperative,” Sergeant Barth noted that Caniglia appeared “agitated” and “angry.” Id. Mrs. Caniglia also remarked that Caniglia was upset that she had called the police. Id.

Sergeant Barth decided that Caniglia posed a danger to himself and others based on the totality of the circumstances. Id. Caniglia agreed to go to a nearby hospital to receive a psychiatric evaluation. Id. at 119–20. However, Caniglia claimed that he only agreed to go to the hospital because the officers promised that they would not confiscate Caniglia’s guns if he went to the hospital. Id. at 120. That morning either Caniglia or Mrs. Caniglia informed the officers that there was a second gun in the house. Id. Sergeant Barth decided to confiscate both guns, and Captain Henry, a superior officer, approved. Id. Mrs. Caniglia directed the officers to the locations of the seized items: two guns, their magazines, and ammunition. Id. The officers knew that Caniglia owned the seized items and that he did not want them confiscated. Id.

Caniglia tried multiple times to retrieve the guns from the Cranston Police Department. Id. In October 2015, Caniglia’s attorney requested the guns’ return, and the Cranston Police Department returned the guns that December. Id. However, shortly before the police returned the guns, Caniglia filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island against the City of Cranston, the police department, and city officials (“the City”) for claims arising from the alleged unlawful warrantless search and seizure of Caniglia’s person and firearms. Id. Caniglia alleged a myriad of violations, including a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Id. The district court granted summary judgment to the City on the Fourth Amendment issue, reasoning that the officers’ actions fell within the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Id. at 121. Caniglia appealed. Id. at 120. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Id. at 139. The United States Supreme Court granted Caniglia certiorari on November 20, 2020.



Petitioner Caniglia asserts that the core objective of the Fourth Amendment is the protection of the home. Brief for Petitioner, Edward Caniglia at 23. Conversely, Caniglia argues, vehicles are at the bottom of the Fourth Amendment’s hierarchy of privacy interests because of individuals’ lowered expectations of privacy in their vehicles. Id. at 18. According to Caniglia, this reduced expectation of privacy is due to pervasive government regulation of vehicles and the frequent, plain-view exposure of vehicle occupants and contents when on public roads. Id. at 18–19. Caniglia asserts that this hierarchy is reflected by differing search standards—such as that officers may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle, but not a home, with probable cause alone. Id. at 19, 23. Moreover, the United States Supreme Court, Caniglia contends, recognizes this privacy hierarchy. Id. at 25. Caniglia elaborates that the Court in Collins v. Virginia invalidated the warrantless search of a vehicle when it was parked in the curtilage of a home, reasoning that the rationales for generally permitting warrantless vehicle searches were inapplicable when the car is in the vicinity of the more-protected home. Id. Caniglia further notes that the Court has implied that the community caretaking exception does not apply to the home in Camara v. Municipal Court. Id. at 23–24. In Camara, Caniglia explains, the Court stated that community safety considerations are insufficient to justify a warrantless entry into a dwelling. Id. Caniglia emphasizes that not only are community safety considerations the primary considerations behind the community caretaking exception, but also Camara was a much less intrusive case that only involved administrative officials attempting to enter a home without a warrant to conduct a routine home inspection. Id. Furthermore, Caniglia argues that community caretaking is an unclear and catch-all exception that is incompatible with the two recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement for the search of a home—exigent circumstances and consent—which are narrow and carefully written to make their application clear and simple. Id. at 27, 32.

Therefore, Caniglia posits that the community caretaking exception applies only to vehicles, a limitation made clear in Cady v. Dombrowski. Brief for Petitioner at 13–14. Caniglia contends that three key factors in Cady allowed the community caretaking exception to apply: (1) the search was of a vehicle, (2) the vehicle was already in police custody, and (3) the search was conducted pursuant to department “caretaking” protocols. Id. at 15–16. Caniglia asserts that the Court has only applied the community caretaking exception in two other cases, both of which shared these three critical factors. Id. at 16. Caniglia thus concludes that there is no basis in Cady or its progeny to extend the community caretaking exception to the home. Id. at 20.

Respondents the City of Cranston’s Finance Director Robert Strom and other City of Cranston officials (collectively “the City”) counter that the true benchmark of Fourth Amendment protection is reasonableness, rather than a bright-line hierarchy of privacy interests. Brief for Respondents, Robert Strom et al. at 16. The City asserts that the Fourth Amendment has always been interpreted to protect homes only from unreasonable searches, as opposed to all searches. Id. at 22. Further, the City argues that the presumption that the warrantless search of a home is unreasonable is rebuttable, as the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement is riddled with exceptions. Id. The City notes that, based on this reasonableness standard, the Court has upheld warrantless entry into the home by police when the privacy interests in the entry are outweighed by urgency or need, such as when police are in hot pursuit. Id. Further, according to the City, the Framers tied the Fourth Amendment’s protection to police’s criminal investigatory functions, which have no parallel to police’s community caretaking functions. Id. at 23, 25. As support, the City points to precedent where suspicion-less drug checkpoints were invalidated because police were merely seeking evidence of criminal wrongdoing, whereas suspicionless sobriety checkpoints were upheld because police were fulfilling their community protection role by removing drunk drivers from the streets. Id. at 26. Under the current system, the City argues, police have no grounds to seek a warrant to conduct a search in a noncriminal matter. Id. at 39. Thus, the City contends that the exercise of pure, noncriminal caretaking functions does not implicate Fourth Amendment concerns at all. Id.

The City further contends that there is no rule that limits the community caretaking doctrine to vehicles. Id. at 21. According to the City, the proper framework for determining whether a search is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment is to balance one’s reasonable expectation of privacy with the need to protect public safety. Id. at 17. The City thus asserts that the Court reached its conclusion in Cady through this reasonableness analysis, as opposed to some fixed standard that the community caretaking exception applies only to vehicles. Id. at 19–21. The City further argues that the Court had the opportunity to limit the community caretaking doctrine only to vehicles in Colorado v. Bertine, where personal belongings inside a vehicle were opened and searched during a routine inventory search, yet the Court declined and instead justified the search using the reasonableness analysis. Id. at 20. Moreover, the City states that the Court paved the way for the community caretaking doctrine to apply to the home in Brigham City v. Stuart—where police entered a home without a warrant to break up a fight—by acknowledging that police have a responsibility to restore peace and prevent violence, although the Court ultimately disposed of the case under a different warrant exception. Id. at 29. Moreover, the City contends that many lower courts have successfully extended the community caretaking exception to homes, so there is no reason to think courts are incapable of conducting such an analysis. Id. at 33, 36.


Caniglia argues that in most cases where the community caretaking exception has been deemed applicable by the lower courts, the exigency exception to the warrant requirement could have applied instead. Brief for Petitioner at 33–34. Caniglia contends that in cases where there is no actual exigency, police have the time to obtain a warrant before conducting the search or can seek alternative methods of help. Id. at 32. Moreover, Caniglia warns that recognizing a community caretaking exception would eliminate the protections that the exigency exception has been carefully designed to provide, which were meant to allow police to infringe on a person’s privacy rights by entering the home without a warrant only in a true emergency. Id. For the exigency exception to apply, Caniglia asserts, courts have made clear that officers must be responding to a current or truly imminent threat of harm, regardless of factors like the seriousness of the crime under investigation. Id. at 29. Caniglia maintains that the community caretaking exception, on the other hand, has no such immediacy or similar temporal limitations. Id. at 32. Thus, Caniglia concludes that recognizing this exception in the context of home searches would create a new, less protective “exigency-lite” exception to the warrant requirement. Id.

The City counters that the exigency exception is insufficient to encompass community caretaking responsibilities. Brief for Respondents at 41. Given that police duties include preventing violence, the City argues that a serious or life-threatening emergency, as mandated by the exigency exception, should not be required to authorize a timely response to a dangerous situation. Id. at 37. The City contends that the same concept that underlies the exigency exception also underlies the community caretaking exception—that police need to be empowered to act when the circumstances are such that obtaining a warrant is impossible. Id. at 41. The City posits that similar to how immediacy makes obtaining a warrant impossible under exigent circumstances, a lack of criminal activity makes obtaining a warrant impossible in community caretaking circumstances because investigating criminal activity is required to obtain a warrant. Id. at 42. The City also asserts that the exigency exception requires probable cause, which is a concept exclusive to criminal law and inapplicable to cases of community caretaking. Id. Thus, the City concludes that the various non-investigatory functions of the police encompassed by community caretaking require the doctrine to stand on its own. Id.



In support of Caniglia, the Pacific Legal Foundation argues that the historical importance of the right to privacy in the home outweighs extending the community caretaking exception to the home. Brief of Amicus Curiae Pacific Legal Foundation, in Support of Petitioner at 14. The Pacific Legal Foundation highlights that privacy rights in the home have historic importance in the United States. Id. at 15. In fact, the Pacific Legal Foundation notes, American assertion of the right to privacy in the home was a trigger for the American Revolution. Id. The Pacific Legal Foundation further argues that sensitive information, such as a person’s medical records, sexuality, and membership in anonymous groups, may be discovered in searches of the home, and therefore government interests in community caretaking must yield to these privacy interests in the home. Id. at 17. The Rutherford Institute agrees and further argues that if the home is not protected from warrantless searches, then other buildings are not protected either. Brief of Amicus Curiae Rutherford Institute, in Support of Petitioner at 13. The Rutherford Institute notes that even computers and cell phones within these buildings could be searched, allowing the police access to large amounts of data about a person’s whereabouts. Id. Additionally, the Rutherford Institute notes that police officers could create permanent records of this sensitive information during their searches as officers often wear body cameras while conducting their searches. Id.

In support of the City, the United States counters that health, safety, and other non-investigatory concerns may justify warrantless searches and seizures. Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Respondents at 20. The United States acknowledges that there is a “substantial privacy interest in the home,” but that in particular cases, ensuring public safety outweighs an individual’s privacy interests. Id. at 20. The United States also notes that home entries for non-crime-related purposes often involve a less intrusive invasion of a person’s privacy. Id. at 21. In fact, the United States notes, some investigatory searches, such as searches for building code violations, do not require a significant invasion of a person’s privacy because the purpose of the search is not to find evidence of a crime. Id. Non-investigatory searches, the United States argues, are even less likely to invade a person’s privacy. Id. at 22. Nine U.S. states agree, in support of the City, arguing that warrantless searches beyond those involving vehicles are justified in the interest of public safety despite the greater expectation of privacy in the home. Brief of Amici Curiae Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Texas, and Utah, in Support of Respondents at 16, 18.


In support of Caniglia, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a group of criminal procedure professors (“NACDL”) argue that expanding the community caretaking exception allows police officers to use this exception as a pretext for searching for illegal activity and contraband. Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Criminal Procedure Professors, in Support of Petitioner at 23. The NACDL asserts that while the community caretaking exception is already used as a pretext for vehicular investigations, the risk of using the community caretaking exception as pretext for a search is even greater in the context of home entries because of the greater privacy interests. Id. at 23–24. In fact, the NACDL notes that California extended the community care exception to the home but restricted the exception twenty years later because the risk of using the exception as a pretext for criminal investigations was too great. Id. The NACDL also states that incentivizing these pretextual searches would negatively affect public perceptions of the police by making the public doubt the police’s role in community caretaking. Id. at 24.

In support of the City, the National Association of Counties and other organizations (“National Association of Counties”) counter that the narrow reading of the community caretaking exception would incentivize police officers to not act. Brief of Amici Curiae National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, International City/County Management Association, and International Municipal Lawyers Association, in Support of Respondents at 19. The National Association of Counties maintains that limiting the community care exception would allow individuals to sue police officers for acting, but not for failing to act. Id. Therefore, the National Association of Counties argues, police officers would not perform some of their caretaking duties out of fear that they would be held liable for violating the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 19–20. However, the National Association of Counties asserts, the public relies on police officers to exercise their role as community caretakers. Id. at 21. The National Association of Counties contends that preventing a suicide “should be appreciated, not second-guessed and sued.” Id.

Edited by 


The authors would like to thank Professor John H. Blume for his guidance and insights into this case.

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