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Cato Supreme Court Review

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law enforcement, Fourth Amendment, the proper role of police in society


Fourth Amendment | Law | Law Enforcement and Corrections


What is the proper role of the police? That question has been at the forefront of debates about policing for quite some time, but especially in the past year. One answer, spurred by countless news stories about black people killed by law enforcement officers, is that the power of the police should be reduced to the bare minimum, with some in the Defund the Police movement calling for outright abolition of local police departments. Toward the other end of the spectrum is the notion that the role of the police in modern society is and must be capacious. Police should function as “community caretakers,” because “a police officer—over and above his weighty responsibilities for enforcing the criminal law—must act as a master of all emergencies, who is ‘expected to aid those in distress, combat actual hazards, prevent potential hazards from materializing, and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’”

That commodious language comes from the First Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Caniglia v. Strom. The court relied on the “special role of the police in our society” to hold that police may enter the home of a suicidal individual to seize his guns, when he is not present, in the absence of consent, and without a warrant. As a matter of formal legal doctrine, the First Circuit purported to be applying what courts have long called the “community caretaker exception” to the Fourth Amendment rule that warrants are usually required to carry out a search of a home and the seizure of items in it.

The First Circuit’s holding did not stand for long, however. In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, a unanimous Supreme Court (not a common phenomenon these days) reversed the First Circuit, taking only four pages to do so (also unusual in recent years).



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