Community Care Taking Doctrine- A Windfall for Incriminating Evidence

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We frequently hear back about the erosion of our civil liberties. Often various pundits, bloggers, and even judges fervently debating the scope and applicability of our Constitutional rights.  Even in an era of the expansive “police state” it is important to celebrate the small victories. Even gaining an inch is as good as gaining a mile. The outcry for policing reform over the past year (since the murder of George Floyd) has reanimated the civil liberties debate. Unfortunately, someone had to be martyred to shift the public discourse in the correct direction.

Considering this renewed public consciousness of civil rights, crucial that we hold public officials accountable. This has been observable by the recent reforms regarding Qualified Immunity at the state level.  Accountability isn’t limited to just immunities and privileges granted to government employees, but also to how our laws are enforced. Anyone serving on the behalf of the public should perform their job function in a manner that is faithful to our Bill of Rights. Not execute their job functions in a way that will trample our rights as private citizens. This is why the Supreme Court’s opinions on civil liberty cases are crucial in insulating us from extralegal and invasive procedures from our civil servants.

The Fourth Amendment has arguably been one of the biggest casualties of technological advancement and doctrinal exceptions developed in previous case precedence. With the rapid evolution of surveillance technology coupled with judicially crafted loopholes, our expectation of privacy has greatly diminished. One doctrine that has developed from case law has had the unfortunate consequence of undermining the Fourth Amendment. That being the Community Caretaking Doctrine. This doctrine is a prime example of “…law from the bench..”. The Community Caretaking Doctrine was not fabricated to facilitate criminal investigations, but rather provide a privacy exception where a warrantless entry to another person’s property was necessary due to various categories of exigent circumstances. The pivotal case in the formulation of the doctrine was Cady v. Dombrowski (1973). In which, the arresting officers searched a vehicle in a drunk driving crash. To recover a service revolver. Doing so with the intentions of facilitating public safety. 

Traditionally the Community Care Taking function of the police has been separated from criminal investigations (p.263). The conflict arises when police engage in caretaking functions and come across evidence linking someone to a crime. It is applied in situations under which the Emergency and Exigent Circumstances Doctrines would not apply. The two primary functions of the Community Care Taking Doctrine can be summarized as :

“…the community caretaking doctrine as authority for warrantless home entry would apply in only two situations: (1) non-bodily harms such as nuisances; and (2) non-imminent threats of bodily harm.…” (p.10).

The “nuisance” function of the doctrine may seem frivolous, however, it is frequently invoked. The case the United States v. Rohrig (1996) embodies a classic example of “non-bodily harms such as nuisances”, a noise complaint. (p.16). Neighbors called in the early hours of the morning to report loud music being played. Officers opened the unlocked door to the defendant’s house to request he turn the music down. While locating the homeowner “… discovered wall-to-wall marijuana plants, as well as fans and running water…”. Presenting an interesting conundrum because it is debatable whether the plain view doctrine could apply. The officer did entry the property of the homeowner with his consent nor with a warrant in hand. Criminal evidence was obtained stemming from something as trivial as noise complaints. Normatively, this makes a convincing argument for weighing the severity of the circumstances justifiable under any warrantless search and entry. Regardless of the doctrine upholding its legality. Loud music is certainly a nuisance, but it is devoid of any real danger. In the absence of any statutory mandate enabling the police to enter or the defendant’s violation of local noise ordinance; the police procured evidence of a Marijuana grows operation predicated on a legal construct. One that was conceived on the lofty bench of the high court. In the absence of ample circumstantial indicators of a serious crime nor of an emergency. It is difficult for any defender of the Fourth Amendment to perceive such actions as anything but intrusive and inordinate.

Your Car is Not Your Castle- Part III: Post- Cooper

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The post-Cooper case precedence removes the one core restriction established in Carroll. The elimination of the standard of a search being proximal to a traffic stop only further provides more fodder for the justification of extending warrantless searches. Making Cooper arguably a pivotal case in the advancement of the Fourth Amendment Law on vehicle searches. Consequential, throwing out this one requirement serves only to further erode our Constitutional right to privacy. Even the jurisprudence behind the plain view doctrineand probable cause is at best questionable from a normative standpoint. Upholding the limitation of onsite warrantless searches could at least be perceived as a fair compromise between civil libertarians and criminal justice conservatives.

All cases from Cooper on the standard of “appurtenance” of a search to being detained were served. Divorcing these two variables further expands the ability of code enforcement officers to commence warrantless searches of automobiles. Even after the defendant has been incarcerated. Such expansive interpretation of the doctrines involving warrantless searches of vehicles degrades the rights guarded under the Fourth Amendment. Criminating evidence discovered with a substantial probable cause at least has some grounds for permissibility. Allowing searches after detention by police bring down a treacherous slippery slope that can only be exacerbated by further judicial innovation.

Dyke V. Taylor Implement Manufacturing Company Inc (1968)

The incident serving as the basis for this case stemmed from the events that transpired on February 25, 1966. It was purported that petitioners Dyke, McKinney, and Blackwell were riding in a vehicle implicated in a shooting. The automobile drove past the home of Lloyd Duckett, a nonstriking employee of “Taylor Implement”. Duckett’s son-in-law who was standing in the front yard of the property saw the shots come from the vehicle and fired back with his pistol. Subsequently, he reported the incident to Monroe County police. Police then spotted that they presumed met Ellis’s (Duckett’s son-in-law) description and chased the car. The speeding vehicle was eventually stopped and the occupants were sent to the local jail. While the defendants sat in jail local police searched the automobile. The officers came across an air rifle underneath the front seat of the car. Even at the trial, it was noted that:

“…the case against petitioners was ‘premised entirely upon circumstantial evidence’ but that nonetheless he had ‘no trouble at all with the proof which I have heard and I have weighed it in its severest form, that the charges made must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt….”

Invariably the petitioners were found to be guilty by the court. The defendants were sentenced to ten days in jail and a fifty-dollar fine. The Tennessee State Supreme Court rejected the petitioner’s claim that the evidence against them had been seized illegally. Since the air rifle was obtained when the defendants were incarcerated. However, the court did find that the officers did not face sufficient probable cause to stop and then search the car. Because the arresting officers lacked a complete description of the offending vehicle. Citing Brinegar v. the United States the Supreme court ruled that the evidence had been obtained illegally. Forcing the court to find the evidence of the air rifle seized in the search to be inadmissible in search. It would be a mistake to even perceive this court decision as even a small victory for Fourth Amendment advocates. This court ruling reads more like a technicality than jurisprudence aiming to insulate our right to unjust searches by the long arm of the law. Any judgment against the inferences of the officers was made about the flimsy evidence justifying their intervention versus Fourth Amendment concerns.

Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970)

The events leading to the complaints in Chambers V. Maroney transpired on May 20, 1963. 

A blue station wagon containing four occupants, one wearing a trench coat and a green sweater was stopped by police. Matching the description of two men implicated in the robbery of a Pennsylvania gas station the occupants were arrested. There was a trench coat found and the vehicle and one occupant wearing a green sweatshirt. After the car was seized, it was taken to the police station and subsequently searched by authorities. During the search, the police discovered two pistols in the glove compartment and business cards from another gas station that had been recently burglarized.

In Chambers, it was found that the warrantless search of the car obtaining the handguns and business cards was lawful. However, the search failing on the dimension of appurtenance cannot be “..justified..”. Since the search had no connection to the “.. incident to the arrest..”. The spurious nature of the legal justification was outweighed by the probable cause logically substantiating the need to search for stolen property. Due to the mobile nature of cars if there is probable cause it is imperative that the vehicle is searched (citing Carroll). Arguably the most fatal reasoning in Chambers was that location of the search was inconsequential to any Fourth Amendment concerns.

“…Given probable cause, there is no difference under the Fourth Amendment between (1) seizing and holding a car before presenting the issue of probable cause to a magistrate, and (2) carrying out an immediate warrantless search…”

Demonstrating that whatever “gains” were made in Dyke were only illusory. If there was any impact made in Dyke was ineffectual if the case even moved the needle at all. As previously noted, the court weighed scant evidence for the stop and search than any civil liberty concerns. Since Dyke lacked any true fidelity to Preston, it can be seen as inert and inconsequential in the advancement of protecting the Fourth Amendment. The lack of resistance to relinquishing the appurtenance requirement for warrantless searches makes Chambers merely a continuation of the logic held in Cooper.

Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973)– The Birth of the Community Care Taking Doctrine

Cady V. Dombrowski ended up being a seminal case in the evolution of the jurisprudence of Fourth Amendment law. Arising from the decision was the foundation for the legal construct of the Community Care Taking Doctrine. Over time this doctrine has become another tool in facilitating legal warrantless searches. Despite the notable observation that an individual does have a lower expectation of privacy in their car versus their house; it is reasonable to question the veracity of the care-taking functions conferred by the court to police officers. The circumstances surrounding the development of this doctrine appear to be indicative of what many jurists refer to as “..legislating from the bench..”. The advancement of expansive doctrines through case operates as an informal form of lawmaking. The court’s historical disregard for our Fourth Amendment rights on motor vehicles is disturbing. The genesis of the Community Care Taking Doctrine serves to provide another justification instead of necessary limitations.

The Cady decision was spurred by an incident that occurred just outside of a small town in Wisconsin. The defendant had crashed his rented vehicle and was determined by responding officers to be intoxicated. He was then taken to the hospital and subsequently arrested on charges of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence. The defendant’s vehicle was towed to a garage several miles away from the police station. The next day, police commence a search of the unguarded vehicle after being informed the arrested respondent was a Chicago police officer, in an attempt to recover his service revolver. The officers found substantial evidence linking the respondent to potential murder.

“…search of the car and found in the trunk several items, some bloodied, which he removed. Later, on receipt of additional information emanating from the respondent, a blood-stained body was located on the respondent’s brother’s farm in a nearby county. Thereafter, through the windows of a disabled Dodge which respondent had left on the farm before renting the Ford, an officer observed other bloodied items. Following the issuance of a search warrant, materials were taken from the Dodge, two of which (a sock and floor mat) were not listed in the return on the warrant among the items seized..” (Justia)

The defendant refuted the evidence obtained in the vehicle search during his murder trial through a habeas corpus action. The court of appeals ended up overturning the judgment of the courts. Viewing as the evidence linking the defendant to the murder as unconstitutional obtained. However, this was not even remotely a Fourth Amendment victory. The court may have perceived the evidence procured in the search as being inadmissible, but the search in itself was not outside the bounds of reasonable action. Ruling that the search of the automobile itself was imperative for securing public interest. Mainly from the standpoint of the safety of the general public.

“…The warrantless search of the Ford did not violate the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth. The search was not unreasonable, since the police had exercised a form of custody of the car, which constituted a hazard on the highway, and the disposition of which by the respondent was precluded by his intoxicated and later comatose condition; and the revolver search was standard police procedure to protect the public from a weapon’s possibly falling into improper hands. Preston v. the United States, 376 U. S. 364, distinguished; Harris v. the United States, 390 U. S. 234, followed. Pp. 413 U. S. 439-448…” (Justia).

Removing the disabled vehicle from the road, especially if it was blocking access to a roadway presents a conundrum. The vehicle needs to be removed due to the car obstructing traffic. Even property rights purists (even if the ethical disagree with the police moving the vehicle) can logically deduce the rationale for doing so. The question of whether the road was a public or private roadway comes into play. Splitting hairs over such minute points is outside the scope of my analysis. It can begrudgingly acquiesce that there may be grounds to justify moving the car. However, the search for the service revolver was an overreach. If our cars can be searched merely for some vague “public interest” purpose it becomes difficult to place effective limitations on these justifications. Especially when terms like “public good” or “public interest” fail any measurable metric of objectivity. Making public safety measures mirror many of the fallacies that plague welfare economics. What is advantageous to one man is detrimental to another, unless adequate compensation is provided. The ambiguity of these qualitative terms is precisely is what lends them to the reasoning for the expansion of constructs such as the Community Care Taking Doctrine.

Your Car is Not Your Castle- Part I

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The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is central to our modern conception of property rights. Outside of contract law, few areas other than our right to privacy substantially address such civil libertarian concerns. The Fourth Amendment like so many other Constitution “rights” are not absolute and are subject to various exceptions and stipulations. Much how our right to free speech has limitations, the same can be said about our right to privacy. Even instances of warrantless searches of property and persons. Conceptually a warrantless search and seizure of property are condoned under a specific legal context. Effectively divorcing case law from the normative justifications for the drafting of the Fourth Amendment. The basis for the Fourth Amendment has its origins in the philosophical precepts of English Common Law. Immortalized in the words of the English jurist Sir Edward Coke “…That the house of everyone is to him as his Castle and Fortress..” implying that the home is a man’s ultimate refuge from public life. It is where he stores his personal effects and experiences the most intimate moments of his life. Arguably making securing one’s home the focal point of the property rights protected under the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment concisely details the intended scope of security bestowed to American citizens under its protections.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (Amendment IV, U.S. Constitution).

In a literal reading of the amendment, it is quite evident that its scope was enough for covering the property rights of citizens of the 18th century. With the advent of new technology, this list of protected areas of the property is wholly incomplete. Since the era of the founding, the various types of property ownership have greatly expanded to include automobiles, various forms of modern intellectual property rights, and even digitally stored information. This is likely why some jurists advocate for the prospect of a “ Constitution..” that possesses the pliability to adapt to modern times. Despite the potential danger of illiberal innovations that may be utilized to invalidate crucial Constitutional rights. E.g.) An amendment that repeals the Second Amendment due to an increase in gun violence. Due to the stringent requirements to ratify such Amendments, the 4th Amendment has evolved primarily from case law. Primarily the rulings in Supreme Court cases, setting the tone for the modern interpretation of our right to privacy.

In certain contexts, our expectation of privacy varies. For instance, we do not have the same expectation of privacy walking down the street as we do in our bedroom. The verbatim text of the Fourth Amendment does explicitly guard Americans against warrantless searches of their home and person but leaves us in a murky situation when it comes to modern forms of ownership. Never mind cloud computing and other variants of modern data storage, but even automobiles are left out of the equation. This concern becomes particularly significant in the event of a traffic stop. However, factors relating to probable cause and the plain view doctrine need to be considered in justifying a warrantless search of a vehicle, there is another variable at play. Simply, we do not have the same expectation of privacy in our car that we do in our home. To many people, this may sound somewhat absurd and normatively there are some grounds for arguing against this point. However, from the stance of positive law, these assumptions hold.

The origin of the modern limits of the Fourth Amendment regarding vehicle searches dates back to Carroll V. United States (1925). In September 1921, Carroll met with an undercover agent to sell illegal whiskey. After Carroll left the location to obtain the whiskey his “potential” client had left. Then in early October Carroll’s vehicle was involved in a chase with a patrolling police car. Carroll was able to escape arrest. Then on December 15th of the same year, Carroll was pursued and stopped by police. During the traffic stop, the officers discovered 68 bottles of illicit whiskey tucked behind the upholstery of the car. The court held that the agents that apprehended Carroll had justifiable probable cause to search his vehicle. Since previous encounters with the suspect indicated a high likelihood that he owned alcoholic beverages.

It is easy to find such conclusions troubling. After all, we do own our cars. Shouldn’t searches of automobiles require a warrant barring exigent circumstances or the consent of the owner? Carroll happened to be the defining case that did indeed confirm that a man’s car is not his castle! It is easy to assume that the same rights that apply to a home could easily be extrapolated to a vehicle. Much like a home, a car can act as a vessel for holding personal effects. In some cases, for individuals that are homeless, a car is their house. Carroll singlehandedly defines the criteria under which an automobile differs from a stationary house regarding the expectation of privacy. The court ruled that the authorities having the suspicion that a car contains contraband is in itself justifiable for a warrantless search. Why? Since cars are mobile, they can easily leave the jurisdiction well before a warrant can be issued. This decision on the part of the court may seem overarching, however, it was not without limits. The court ruled that warrantless searches of parked automobiles would be considered unreasonable. That the search must be “…contemporaneous with the stop…” making it improper to move the vehicle offsite to search at the police officer’s “convenience ”. Subsequent cases even decades after the Carroll decision would further erode the notion that there is an expectation of privacy in one’s car. Noting that the very nature of a car being a conveyance strips away much of privacy privileged to our homes. Later cases even detailing that “…It travels public thoroughfares where both its occupants and its contents are in plain view…”.