Fourth Amendment: The Community Caretaker Exception

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrantless searches are per seunreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject only to a few exceptions.  Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 390 (1978). Exceptions to the warrant requirement include, among others, the plain view doctrine, searches incident to arrest, exigent circumstances, and consent.

Another exception, discussed here, is the Community Caretaker Exception. Articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski, the community caretaker function is an exception to the warrant requirement that covers warrantless seizure of evidence while officers are performing “community caretaker functions.” Commonwealth v. Waters, 20 Va. App. 285 (1995). This includes care-taking activities performed by officers that are “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Barret v. Commonwealth, 18 Va. App. 773, 776 (1994). It is a common-sense exception that allows local enforcement to render aid.  Yet to balance a risk of abuse, the courts tightly proscribe its use when it crosses over into crime detection.

Law enforcement is permitted, for example, to provide aid to “citizens who are ill or in distress.”   The community caretaker doctrine cannot, however, be used as a “pretext” for investigating criminal activity.  The court in Barrett required that the officer have a “reasonable and articulable suspicion, based upon observed facts or a credible report, that a citizen is in distress or need of assistance” before effectuating a “brief and limited seizure for the purpose of investigating the suspicion and rendering aid.”  The Waters court looked to whether “(1) the officer’s initial contact or investigation is reasonable; (2) the intrusion is limited; and (3) the officer is not investigating criminal conduct under the pretext of exercising his community caretaker function.”

The Virginia courts have not fully examined the contours of the doctrine, so the application is often left to judgment of individual police officers and the trial judge. For this reason, it is a ripe area to explore in any criminal case where the doctrine is the basis of the search and seizure that led to inculpatory evidence. Contact the office today if you would like a review of the Fourth Amendment to your Virginia or Washington, D.C., criminal case.

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