Today the Community Caretaking Doctrine is seldom used but the courts and community recognize that the Hardest Job in America needs to take action when no one else can.

Cady v. Dombrowski

413 U.S. 433 (1973)

Decided: June 21, 1973

U.S. Supreme Court

On September 11, 1967 off duty Chicago Police Officer, Chester Dombrowsky was in Chicago and at 12:30 a.m. rented a 1967 black over maroon Ford Thunderbird. He drove from Chicago, Illinois to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to go to his brother’s farm.  At 9:40 a.m. he was seen purchasing hand towels in Kewaskum, Wisconsin which is twenty-seven miles from Fond du Lac.  Just outside of Kewaskum, Officer Dombrowsky drove off the road and hit a bridge abutment. He was given a ride to the local sheriff’s office by an unidentified motorist.  Officer Dombrowsky notified the Washington County Wisconsin Sheriff’s Office of the accident.  Two deputies drove him back to the scene and on the way, he told them he was a Chicago Police Officer.  At the scene one of the deputies searched the inside of the Thunderbird, looking for defendant’s service revolver. The trunk was not searched. The Thunderbird was locked by a deputy, who kept the keys, and it was towed to a private garage in Kewaskum. Officer Dombrowski was taken to the sheriff’s office in West Bend where he was “arrested” for “drunken driving” and taken to the West Bend hospital.

After leaving the Thunderbird, Deputy William Weiss, at approximately 2:13 a. m., went to the Kewaskum garage and without the knowledge or consent of Officer Dombrowski made a warrantless search of the rental. Deputy Weiss was concerned that Officer Dombrowski’s service revolver was inside the Thunderbird.  Deputy Weiss seized from the trunk, a pair of police uniform trousers, a pair of gray trousers, a nightstick with the name “Dombrowski” stamped on it, a raincoat, a portion of a car floor mat, and a towel; all items were splattered with blood. The blood on the car mat was moist. Deputy Weiss removed these items to the police station.

Officer Dombrowski, while in the hospital during the morning of September 12, retained an attorney from West Bend. The attorney conferred with Officer Dombrowski at the hospital and then informed the local county prosecutor that a body could be found on Dombrowski’s brother’s farm. At about 3:00 p. m. Washington and Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s officials went to the farm and conducted an extensive warrantless search. In the search, Herbert McKinney’s dead body was found.

Now ‘former Officer’ Chester Dombrowski was convicted of First Degree Murder.  He would later file a Writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a court action for the defendant to be released from prison.  At the heart of this writ, the former police officer challenged the search of the Ford Thunderbird where the bloody items were discovered.  In a five to four decision the U.S. Supreme Court, the majority opinion wrote by Justice William Renquist, held, “Local police officers, unlike federal 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. [emphasis added] Id at 441.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Why wasn’t Cady evaluated under an Inventory Search? Because that doctrine was established in South Dakota v. Opperman 428 U.S. 364 (1976) which was decided three years after Cady, so at the time the Inventory Search was not judicially minted.  What makes this case significant is it established a doctrine that is a catch-all.  When there is no legal doctrine to place actions of a law enforcement officer, but the courts and community know there must be a response, the Community Caretaking Doctrine is available to nestle the officer’s actions.
  1. The Cady court analyzed that Deputy Weiss had a ‘Community Caretaking Function’ to protect the public from the reasonable belief that a firearm may be inside the impounded Ford Thunderbird. The deputy cared enough to think of the harm that could be done by an unsecured loaded firearm. Since the Cady appellate courts have been, at best, inconsistent with the application of the Community Caretaking Doctrine.
  1. There have been three areas where the U.S. Supreme Court has applied the Community Caretaking Doctrine; 1) Automobile inventory and impound, 2) Emergency Aid and 3) Public Servant. The case law is scant in this area but there are times when officers act when no one else is available; that is the essence of the Community Caretaking Doctrine.
  1. Though I referred to Chester Dombrowski in this article as ‘officer’, which for a time he was, he ultimately was nothing more than a felon wearing a police uniform!

Information for this article was obtained from both Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973) and Dembrowski v. Cady, 471 F.2d 280 (7th Cir. 1972).

Does your agency train on the Community Caretaking Doctrine?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.