The Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement: Federal Law

The United States Supreme Court first created the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement in the case of Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). This case involved a drunk driving investigation by members of a local police department in Wisconsin. The defendant in this case was a Chicago police officer who had been involved in an accident. The vehicle he was using had become disabled as a result of the accident and had been towed away. During their investigation of the accident, the police officers became aware of the defendant’s status as a member of the Chicago P.D. They conducted two searches of the vehicle believing that the officer was required to carry a gun with him at all times, even when he is off duty. The first search was conducted at the scene and the second was conducted at the garage where the vehicle had been towed. The purpose of these searches was to recover the weapon as a matter of public safety. The local police maintained standard procedures for these types of searches. During the course of their search for the gun, the police discovered evidence that tied the defendant to a homicide.

The USSC upheld the search as valid under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Ordinarily, the search with be administrative in nature and will involve a vehicle that is disabled or has been abandoned on the highway. The search is not based upon an effort to find evidence of a crime, but rather to perform an administrative function per established departmental procedures, such as accounting for and safeguarding property or determining ownership of the vehicle in question.

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