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Non-Delegation Doctrine 101

January 1, 1970

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Absent exigent circumstances or consent, police must obtain judicial authorization (a warrant) to enter a home. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated, for example in Riley v. California, the sanctity of a person’s home is among an individual’s core privacy interests. The Fourth Amendment also demands that, to enter a home, the police officers must have the owner’s consent, “get a warrant” or show that “an emergency justified a warrantless search in [their] particular case.”

In an erosion of this principal, lower courts have recognized exceptions to the Fourth Amendment that allow warrantless entries to one’s dwelling in the absence of exigency or consent. The application of such special cases has been erratic: the exceptions have been developed ad hoc, courts often loosely taking words or phrases from prior Supreme Court cases and infusing the words with meanings not intended. Now there is a national Circuit split on applying these loosely defined concepts.

In 2021, the Supreme Court addressed this issue. In Caniglia v. Strom, Mr. Caniglia and his wife had an argument during which he asked her to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” She did not shoot him, and spent the night at a hotel. The next day, she tried to reach him by phone unsuccessfully, so she asked the police for a welfare check. After responding to the call, the police sent Mr. Caniglia for a psychiatric evaluation because they believed he might be suicidal. Then they entered Mr. Caniglia’s home without a warrant or consent and confiscated his firearms.

The district court found that the warrantless entry and seizure did not violate the 4th Amendment, reasoning that the entry and seizure fell within the “community-caretaking [warrant] exception”. This phrase was taken from the Supreme Court’s 1973 Cady v. Dombrowski decision that allowed for a warrantless search of a person’s vehicle after the vehicle had been impounded.

On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed in the belief that the “community-caretaking [warrant] exception” applied to both cars and homes. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed unanimously. It held that that the “community caretaking” language from Cady did not create a categorical exception to the core constitutional principle that, absent exigency or consent, a person’s home may not be entered without judicial authorization.

Despite the Supreme Court’s clear statement on the over-riding constitutional necessity of a warrant to enter a home, the Second Circuit recently applied another loosely formulated exception – the “special-needs exception” – to allow the police to circumvent their obligation to seek judicial approval for a home entry.

In Torcivia v. Suffolk Cnty., the police responded to a call from a social workers contacted by Torcivia’s daughter following a verbal argument at home. The officers handcuffed Torcivia and transported him to Stony Brook Hospital’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Evaluation Program (CPEP) for an emergency mental health evaluation. Twelve hours later, Torcivia was evaluated by a psychiatric nurse practitioner who determined he had posed no dangers to himself or others. However, the officers made a warrantless entry into Torcivia’s house and seized his guns by coercing him to give them the combination of the safe in which he kept his firearms.

The district court justified the warrantless home entry, and property seizure, under a “special needs exception” to the warrant requirement. This exception is predicated on the view that, where the police are engaged in activity more involving public safety than crime solving, the strictures of a warrant requirement are not necessary. The Second Circuit affirmed.

The Court’s decision is a dangerous inroad on a person’s right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. Certainly, were there truly exigent circumstances – had an armed criminal fled into the home, or the police heard cries for help from inside the home – it would have been unreasonable to expect the police to delay action while they seek out a judge to review a warrant application.

But that is not occurred in Torcivia. If the police reasonably believed that Torcivia was a danger to himself and others – which he wasn’t – the police had plenty of time to find a judge and explain the necessity for a warrant to enter Torcivia’s home.

In Torcivia, and similar cases, the “special needs exception” is simply an excuse to avoid the constitutional requirement of the judicially-approved warrant.

The Supreme Court should prevent the circuit courts from applying these warrant exceptions that defeat the protections intended by the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Torcivia is seeking Supreme Court review of the Second Circuit’s decision, and NCLA will be filing a brief in support of that request.