By: Nick Christopherson
On August 30, 2019, twenty-three year old Elijah McClain died from injuries sustained during a police welfare check. On the night of the encounter, police responded to a report of a man (McClain) who “look[ed] sketchy,” and after perceiving McClain to be resisting arrest, the officers quickly initiated a takedown. An independent report of the incident stated that it was unclear whether “McClain’s movements, interpreted by the officers as resisting, were attempts to escape or simply an effort . . . to avoid the painful force being applied on him, to improve his breathing, or to accommodate his vomiting.” Paramedics later injected McClain with a sedative, the misapplication of which caused McClain to suffer a heart attack and die several days later.
Police departments dispatch thousands of welfare checks per year in response to a variety of requests submitted by the community. These calls are unpredictable and require talented and flexible responses. Some callers report that their neighbor’s home is being burgled, others worry about unresponsive grandparents, others call to report “sketchy” or sick-looking individuals in the community. For this reason, courts have described police officers as “a ‘jack-of-all emergencies,’” who are “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.” Courts describe this police function as “community caretaking.”
When an officer acts “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute,” she acts in her capacity as a community caretaker. However, the doctrine of community caretaking also acts as an umbrella term that covers other exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. For instance, the doctrines of exigent circumstances, emergency aid, public servant, and warrantless entry all fall under the community caretaking doctrine and are often analyzed simultaneously by courts.
Nevertheless, in rare instances, the community caretaking doctrine is applied by itself—unaccompanied by other exceptions—to justify instances of abusive discretion. For example, in Tinius v. Carrol Cnty. Sheriff Dept., officers observed a man, named Tinius, walking along the highway in the middle of winter without a coat. After suspecting Tinius was on drugs, the officers cuffed Tinius and took him to the hospital, where medical staff recommended admitting Tinius to the hospital’s psychiatric facility. Admission required a urine sample, which the officers obtained through a physically forced catheterization. Tinius was never suspected of any crimes, nor did he give his consent to the detainment and forced catheterization.
On appeal, the court stated that the officers “were exercising their community caretaking functions when they transported Tinius to the hospital and later restrained him” while obtaining the urine sample, and that the officers’ actions did not create the basis for a tort claim. Courts have justified other tortious conduct by officers under similar reasoning. For example, a man crying on the sidewalk ended in a physical encounter with police during which the man sustained serious injuries.
The topic of police accountability has dominated recent news cycles, and a legal doctrine that enables officers to initiate stops, obtain evidence, and utilize force without a warrant and probable cause is dangerous. All Tinius did to suffer detention and forced catheterization was walk along the side of the road without a coat during the winter. Currently under the community caretaking doctrine, courts allow intrusive police conduct meant to protect citizens from potential self-harm. But is this right?
In response to this question, the Supreme Court recently limited the scope of the community caretaking doctrine in Caniglia v. Strom. There, the Supreme Court stated that officers’ “caretaking duties” do not create “a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.” The Court reasoned that officer conduct must satisfy one of the four exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches—(1) possessing a valid warrant, (2) entering amidst exigent circumstances, (3) rendering emergency aid to injured or imminently threatened individuals, and (4) acting as any normal citizen might act (ex., knocking on door)—but that the community caretaking doctrine by itself is insufficient to justify otherwise unexcused tortious conduct by an officer in a private home.
Caniglia’s holding aims to limit the abusive nature of the community caretaking doctrine by preventing its application to home entry. However, the effects of Caniglia are still uncertain, and the doctrines application to tortious police conduct outside the home remains unresolved. Given the state of unrest in America today and the Supreme Court’s recent interest in this topic, it is likely these ambiguities will be fleshed out in coming jurisprudence.
 Claire Lampen, What We Know About the Killing of Elijah McClain, The Cut, https://www.thecut.com/2021/09/the-killing-of-elijah-mcclain-everything-we-know.html (last updated Sept. 1, 2021).
 Welfare checks, also called wellness checks, occur when police dispatch to determine if an individual is safe and healthy. While the term encompasses police responses to a variety of non-criminal activity, one example might be a family member calling to request an officer check on an elderly relative whom the caller suspects is ill, fallen, or even dead in their home, However, sometimes police initiate their own checks on individuals they feel are sick, mentally ill, or pose a danger to themselves or the community. See generally State v. Brumelow 289 So.3d 955, 956 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2019).
 Lampen, supra note 1.
 Jonathan Smith et al., City of Aurora, Investigation Report and Recommendations 18 (Feb. 22, 2021), https://p1cdn4static.civiclive.com/UserFiles/Servers/Server_1881137/File/News%20Items/Investigation%20Report%20and%20Recommendations%20(FINAL).pdf.
 Id. at 10.
 Andrea L. Steffan, Law Enforcement Welfare Checks and the Community Caretaking Exception, 53 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 1071, 1072 (2020) (“[A]t least one suburban police department made around 2,000 welfare checks in 2017.”)
 See, e.g., State v. Alexander, 124 Md.App. 258 (1998) (involving neighbors who called police suspecting their neighbor’s house had been burgled and officers entered home and discovered a large marijuana growing operation).
 See, e.g., Craig v. County of Santa Clara, No. 17-CV-02115-LHK, 2018 WL 3777363, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2018) (Involving officers checking on an unresponsive grandmother with welfare check resulting in grandfather being shot and killed by police).
 See, e.g., United States v. Garner, 416 F.3d 1208 (10th Cir. 2005) (involving reports of a man who had been sitting slumped over in a field outside an apartment complex for hours and police later tackled and arrested after he attempted to flee officer’s detainment.).
 United States v. Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d 780, 784 (1st Cir. 1991).
 Cady v. Dobrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973).
 See United States v. Rohrig, 98 F3d 1506 (6th Cir. 1996) (holding that loud music created exigent circumstances that justified warrantless entry into home).
 See Randall v. State, 101 N.E.3d 831 (Ind. App. 2018) (holding that man slumped over in his car created the need for emergency aid from officer).
 See Wilson v. State, 975 A.2d 877, 888 (2009) (“When the police act to protect the public in a manner outside their normal law enforcement function, many courts have applied the [public servant] doctrine to validate many warrantless searches.”).
 Id. See also United States v. Jackson, 189 F.3d 502 (1999); Ermini v. Scott, 249 F.Supp.3d 1253 (2017); State v. Deneui, 775 N.W.2d 221 (S.D. 2009); State v. Pinkard, 785 N.W.2d 592 (Wis. 2010); United States v. Johnson, 410 F.3d 137, (4th Cir. 2005); United States v. Gwinn, 219 F.3d 326 (4th Cir. 2000). The vast majority of community caretaking cases involve warrantless searches, seizures, and entries.
 321 F. Supp. 2d (N.D. Iowa 2004).
 Id. at 1069.
 Id. at 1070.
 Id. at 1068–1070.
 Id. at 1084.
 Gallegos v. City of Colo. Springs, 114 F.3d 1024 (10th Cir. 1997).
 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021).
 Id. at 1598.
 For further reading on the community caretaking doctrine, see Matthew C. Shapiro, The Road to Fourth Amendment Erosion Is Paved with Good Intentions: Examining Why Florida Should Limit the Community Caretaker Exception, 6 FIU L. Rev. 351 (2011); David Fox, The Community Caretaking Exception: How the Courts Can Allow the Police to Keep Us Safe Without Opening the Floodgates to Abuse, 63 Wayne L. Rev. 407 (2018); Valerie Moss, The Community Caretaking Doctrine: The Necessary Expansion of the New Fourth Amendment Exception, 85 Miss. L.J. (2017); Mark Goreczny, Taking Care While Doing Right by the Fourth Amendment: A Pragmatic Approach to the Community Caretaker Exception, 14 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 229 (2015); Alyssa L. Lazar, Protecting Individuals’ Fourth Amendment Rights Against Government Usurpation: Resolutions to the Problematic and Redundant Community Caretaking Doctrine, 57 Duq. L. Rev. 198 (2019); Debra Livingston, Police, Community Caretaking, and the Fourth Amendment, 1998 U. Chi. Legal F. 261 (1998); Michael R. Dimino, Sr., Police Paternalism: Community Caretaking, Assistance Searches, and Fourth Amendment Reasonableness, 66 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1485 (2009); Andrea L. Steffan, Law Enforcement Welfare Checks and the Community Caretaking Exception to the Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement, 53 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 1071 (2020).