The Michigan Supreme Court today has ruled that the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment against warrantless searches and seizures applies to a firefighter answering a 911 call. The prior rulings of the Court had never directly spoken on this issue, which has let the lower courts to their own devises for determining the applicability of this doctrine to many first responders, including fire fighters. The caretaking exception recognizes that :
“local police officers . . . frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally
divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Cady v Dombrowski, 413 US 433, 441.
With the ruling in Slaughter, firefighters are added to the list of those persons who can serve through their work, the role of community caretakers. This does not mean that now it is possible for a firefighter to barge into your living room uninvited. The actions of the fire fighter still has to be a reasonable action related to the caretaking function. If the action fails to meet one of those two requirements, then it is not a permitted action.
The opinion in Slaughter is careful to remind that this is only one of many exceptions to the warrant requirement based on this law enforcement role. Other situations where it may apply include “entering an apartment to remove a former girlfriend following a domestic dispute, removing an intoxicated person from the street, entering an abandoned boat to ascertain ownership and the safety of the mariners, responding to a missing vehicle complaint, searching an unconscious person for identification, and responding to persons likely to be in need of emergency aid.