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Supreme Courts Hear Case on “Community Caretaking” Exception that May Impact Rights of Virginians Arrested of Criminal Offenses

On Behalf of | May 5, 2021 | Search and Seizure

Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals have the right “to be secure in their houses…against unreasonable searches and seizures.” As the doctrine currently stands, inquiries involving whether a search is constitutional requires the court to look at the “totality of the circumstances.” This vague language significantly impacts those charged with Virginia criminal offenses. Most jurisprudence scholars agree that this inquiry leaves courts with vast and unpredictable discretion in determining the rights of one accused of a crime. This inquiry is most relevant when one accused of a Virginia crime argues that police engaged in an unlawful search of their car or home.

The Supreme Court ruling in Cady v. Dombrowski held that law enforcement may search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant in some situations. This exception applies under the “community caretaking” function, and the ruling was explicit that the exception only extends to motor vehicles and not people’s homes. However, officers in some jurisdictions improperly invoke the community caretaking exception to justify warrantless entries into homes. As a result of the overreaching, the Supreme Court is now tasked with clarifying the original meaning of the right to “be secure” and address the reach of the community caretaking exception.

In Caniglia v. Strom, a couple was arguing in their home when the husband picked up his unloaded handgun and stated to his wife, “why don’t you just shoot me and put me out of my misery.” The following day, after spending the night at a motel, the woman contacted the police and asked them to escort her home. The husband agreed to a psychiatric evaluation after the police assured him they would not confiscate his handguns. After the man was admitted to a psychiatric facility, the police entered his home and seized his handguns. The officers returned the gun after the man sued; however, they argued that the community caretaking exception permitted their seizure.

In Cady, three elements allowed the exception to apply:

  • The search of a vehicle,
  • The vehicle was in police custody,
  • The search was pursuant to department “caretaking” policies.

Here, the petitioner argued that the City does not have a basis for applying the exception to homes. Many entities submitted amicus briefs in support of the petitioner, arguing that these warrantless searches undermine individuals’ constitutional rights. This ruling will have significant implications on Virginians accused of crimes, especially when arrest and conviction hinge on the fruit of a search and seizure of an individual’s home.

Have You Been Arrested or Charged with a Virginia Criminal Offense?

If you or someone you know faces criminal charges, contact Robinson Law, PLLC for assistance. The criminal defense attorneys at our office maintain an active practice representing those charged with crimes throughout the state. We handle Virginia assault and battery charges, domestic assaults, drug charges, DUI/DWI, expungements, federal crimes, sex offenses, and more. Our attorneys handle all stages of a Virginia criminal case and can help you overcome these complex challenges. Contact our office at 703-542-3616 to schedule a free initial consultation with a Virginia criminal defense attorney on our legal team.