Community Caretaking Doctrine – Another Exception to the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the people against “unreasonable searches and seizures” without a valid warrant, however there is an court-ruled exception to this protection known as the Community Caretaking Doctrine that all citizens should be aware of.

Vehicle searches

Photo by: West Midlands Police

The Community Caretaking Doctrine was first brought to light in the case of Cady V. Dombrowski in 1973. Chester J. Dombrowski was a Chicago, Illinois police officer who was driving intoxicated and crashed his car in a town just north over the border in Wisconsin. While Dombrowski lay unconscious in the hospital, police towed the car and later went back to search it after learning Dombrowski was a Chicago police officer who should have been in possession of a service weapon. Fearful the weapon could fall into the wrong hands, officers returned to the car and did a thorough search. Instead of finding Dombrowski’s gun in the car, officers found bloody items in the trunk that led them to discover Dombrowski had been involved in a murder. Dombrowski tried to fight the murder charges, stating his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated when police searched his vehicle without probable cause of a crime and a warrant.

Home searches

In People v. Ray (1999), officers were dispatched to a home after a concerned neighbor reported the door ajar and the house in disarray. When police arrived, the neighbor confirmed the home in question and the officers observed the front door wide open and the interior appeared to have been burglarized. Items were everywhere, things tipped over and one of the officers noted it “appeared to be ransacked.” Concerned for the well-being of the resident living there and suspicious a burglar suspect may still be inside, the two officers entered the home without a warrant. Once inside, officers merely observed the scene, not touching or opening anything.

Photo by: West Midlands Police

They did not find a burglar or a resident in need of help, but they did see a large amount of cocaine. After seeing the drugs, officers returned later with a search warrant and arrested Andre Lamont Ray, the resident of the home, for possession of cocaine with intent to sell among other drug charges. Ray also tried to fight the charges against him, just like Dombrowski, he felt his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches had been violated.

Fourth Amendment rights

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the people against unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause and a lawful warrant. If a search is performed without either permission from the person or a warrant signed by a judge, any evidence obtained through the search is not permissible in court. There are a handful of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment however, such as: when consent is given, if illegal evidence is in plain view, or if local officers “perceived a need to act in the proper discharge of his/her community caretaking functions” as stated in People v. Ray (1999).

Community Caretaking Doctrine

Photo by: Chris Yarzab

The Community Caretaking Doctrine is the result of the people expecting more from police officers than upholding the law. Officers are also expected to serve and protect – always willing to come to the aid of any person in need of help. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in Cady v. Dombrowski that officers are subject to activities that are not related to their criminal investigations and are “community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” In People v. Ray, the superior court noted that in “[these] types of situations ( . . . ) I don’t believe police officers acted improperly in the sense that they were performing a community service of community value. That’s what they are there to do.”

Limitations to the exception

The community caretaking doctrine seems like an open-ended invitation for officers to conduct an unlawful search in the name of helping out a citizen. There are limitations to this warrantless search however that includes officers distinguishing real threats from possible ones and acting on questionable information. Anyone who feels their Fourth Amendment rights were violated due to Community Caretaking loophole and are now facing charges should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

No Reason Needed For Police to Ask to Enter Home

Police do not need a valid reason to ask someone if they can enter a home and unless a warrant is served, homeowners do not need to comply with the request.

Respect but protect

Photo by: West Midlands Police

Many Utah residents acknowledge police officers as being authority figures who can often be seen as intimidating. When an officer knocks on someone’s door, the first reaction a resident may have is to comply completely with anything the officer asks of them. They may think that anything other than complete submission is a sign of guilt. This can lead to a resident waiving his Fourth Amendment rights.

Knock and talk

In order for police officers to enter a home without permission, they need to have a legal warrant or reasonable grounds to do so. With a warrant in hand, police have the right to enter and search any areas outlined in the warrant. If officers do not have a warrant and have no valid reason to enter a home, they are still allowed to knock on the door, just like anybody else can. This is known as a simple “knock and talk”.

Permission not granted

During a “friendly” knock and talk, the homeowner has the option to:

• Talk to officers through the closed door;
• Open the door and answer questions at the door;
• Go outside to speak to officers on the porch; or
• Invite officers inside the residence to talk.

Unfortunately with nervousness and intimidation at work, the majority of people will be overly agreeable and give officers permission to enter their home. Once this is done, that resident has forfeited the protection given them under the Fourth Amendment. Utah residents are encouraged to keep calm when police come knocking and to be respectful while also protecting their rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. If permission is not given and officers enter and search the home anyway, any evidence could be no admissible in court. It is best to consult with an attorney regarding these matters.

Salt Lake City Police Department Code of Ethics

Utah residents have certain expectations from the Salt Lake City Police Department which can include: detecting and preventing criminal activity; answering calls from the public for assistance; and upholding their code of ethics when handling
any situation put before them.

Police conduct in question

Photo by: Dave Conner

A video was recently released showing a July incident involving a Salt Lake City police detective roughly and incorrectly handling a situation with a nurse from the University of Utah hospital. Detective Payne and officers with the Salt Lake Police Department arrived at the hospital, requesting a blood draw from Idaho reserve officer and truck driver William Gray, an innocent victim hurt by a suspect in a high speed chase. After speaking via phone to her supervisor, nurse Alex Wubbels calmly informed Detective Payne that pulling a blood sample from unconscious Gray was unethical, and violated the patient’s Fourth Amendment rights as well as hospital policy. She presented documentation that for police to obtain a blood draw from a patient, they must have either:

• Consent from the patient;
• A warrant from a judge; or
• Have already placed the patient under arrest.

After becoming visibly upset, Detective Payne forcefully removed the nurse from the hospital in handcuffs before placing her in his vehicle.

Protecting citizens from other officers

While Detective Payne’s actions were undoubtedly excessive and troubling, so was the inaction of other officers on scene. Multiple officers were seen present on the video of Payne and Wubbels confrontation however none of those officers stepped in when Payne had noticeably crossed the line and admit shouts of “help me” and “why is this happening” from scared and confused Wubbels. More troubling is why nothing was done within the department until after the video was shared more than a month later. What should Utah residents expect from police and did nurse Wubbels receive treatment from Payne and the police department that was in line with their posted Code of Ethics?

Salt Lake City Police Department Code of Ethics

Photo by: Mesa0789

According to the Salt Lake City Police Department Policies and Procedures Manual is a copy of the Constitution followed closely by the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. This section states that “All law enforcement officers must be fully aware of the ethical responsibilities of their position and must strive constantly to live up to the highest possible standards of professional policing.” The Code of Ethics lists several areas in which they are to uphold these standards. These include: “Responsibilities of a Police Officer; Performance of the Duties of a Police Officer; Discretion; Use of Force; Confidentiality; Integrity; Cooperation with Other officers and Agencies; Personal/Professional Capabilities; and Private Life.

Violation of the Code of Ethics

Some of these “ethical mandates” above do not appear to be portrayed by any members of the police department present during the incident that took place at the University of Utah Hospital. These include:

Responsibilities of a Police officer. The first section of the Code of Ethics state “A police officer acts as an official representative of government who is required and trusted to work within the law. ( . . . ) The fundamental duties of a police officer include serving the community, safeguarding lives and property; protecting the innocent; keeping the peace; and ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”

Performance of the Duties of a Police Officer. According to the next section, “All citizens will be treated equally with courtesy, consideration and dignity. ( . . . ) Laws will be enforced appropriately and courteously and, in carrying out their responsibilities, officers will strive to obtain maximum cooperation from the public. They will conduct themselves in ( . . . ) such a manner as to inspire confidence and respect of the position of public trust they hold.”

Use of Force. Another section of the Code of Ethics explains that “[a] police officer will never employ unnecessary force or violence and will use only such force in the discharge of duty as is reasonable in all circumstances. Force should be used only with the greatest restraint and only after discussion, negotiation and persuasion have been found to be inappropriate or ineffective. While the use of force is occasionally unavoidable, every police officer will refrain from applying the unnecessary infliction of pain or suffering and will never engage in cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment of any person.”

Victims of police force

Nurse Wubbels was an innocent party to the incident at the hospital who was trying to keep the peace herself while protecting another innocent person- her patient William Gray. Not only was Detective Payne uncourteous in his performance, degrading Wubbels in front of her coworkers and other patients while using unnecessary force, the other officers on scene did nothing to protect her or her patient’s rights from Payne’s outrageous behavior. While unfortunate, this scene should encourage the department to increase their training regarding working with health care employees and treating citizens professionally and civilly.