Police can use exigent circumstances to enter homes without a warrant, but the Supreme Court saw no pressing time element in the seizure of a man’s guns a full day after he told his wife to end his misery.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Narrowing police powers to search private property without a warrant, the Supreme Court was unanimous Monday in ruling that officers had no basis to enter the home of a man who wasn’t answering his wife’s phone calls after a fight.
“The First Circuit’s ‘community caretaking’ rule … goes beyond anything this court has recognized,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a blunt ruling against Cranston, Rhode Island, police.
The drama erupted in 2015 one morning when Edward Caniglia joked to his wife of 22 years that he didn’t want to use a coffee mug after his brother-in-law because he “might catch a case of dishonesty.” Fed up with the argument an hour later, the 68-year-old Mr. Caniglia said he stormed off to the bedroom, grabbed an unloaded handgun, brought it to the kitchen, and slammed it on the table. “Why don’t you just shoot me,” he exclaimed, “and get me out of my misery?”
Mrs. Caniglia went to a motel instead. The next morning, she tried to call her husband, and, when he wouldn’t answer the phone, she contacted the police to request an escort home plus a wellness check.
According to the complaint he would later file, Mr. Caniglia appeared normal and polite when he found police at his door. Because the officers thought it still possible that he could harm himself or others, however, they wanted him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the hospital. Mr. Caniglia says he only agreed to this because the officers said they would not confiscate his guns, all of which he had acquired legally. Mr. Caniglia also noted he had no criminal history or record of violence.
Officers who were at the scene don’t recall that agreement. Instead, they had Mrs. Caniglia show them where he kept his guns and confiscated them. They later said that since Mrs. Caniglia legally co-owned the guns, she gave the police consent to take them away.
The First Circuit in turn threw out Caniglia’s suit, relying on the 1973 case Cady v. Dombrowski in which the Supreme Court backed the warrantless police search of an impounded vehicle for an unsecured firearm. For Thomas on Monday, however, Cady’s mere acknowledgement of community-caretaking functions did not “create a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home.”
“This recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that — a recognition that these tasks exist, and not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere,” the 4-page opinion concludes.
While the court was unanimous, several justices penned concurring opinions. In one, Justice Stephen Breyer joined Chief Justice John Roberts in stressing that the court has not altered its holding that “a warrant to enter a home is not required … when there is a “need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.”
In another concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito underscored a point that the chief justice raised at oral arguments.
“Today, more than ever, many people, including many elderly persons, live alone,” Alito wrote. “Many elderly men and women fall in their homes, or become incapacitated for other reasons, and unfortunately, there are many cases in which such persons cannot call for assistance. In those cases, the chances for a good recovery may fade with each passing hour.”
Caniglia’s attorney told the court that police would still need a warrant in such a situation if 24 hours had passed, but Alito said this would mean life or death for a seriously injured or sick elderly person.
Even for one who “regarded her house as her castle,” Alito stressed, “it is doubtful that she would have wanted it to be the place where she died alone and in agony.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote separately to outline some examples where he believes police can intervene without a warrant if someone is at risk of serious and immediate harm.
In addition to these issues, Alito tied Caniglia’s case to the new national trend of states passing so-called “red-flag laws” that allow police to seize guns via court order from individuals who could use them to harm themselves or others.
“Provisions of red flag laws may be challenged under the Fourth Amendment, and those cases may come before us,” Alito wrote. “Our decision today does not address those issues.”
The Firearms Policy Coalition, a gun-rights organization that is litigating against red-flag orders, applauded Caniglia’s court win.
“As our brief made clear, these so-called ‘community caretaking’ searches of homes and seizures of firearms are based on the flimsiest of standards, without any historical support,” said Adam Kraut, who is senior director of legal operations at the coalition. “They violate the text of the Constitution and its original public meaning, and are nothing less than a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment. We are delighted that the Court affirmed that truth in today’s unanimous decision.”
Shay Dvoretzky, a lawyer for Caniglia with Skadden Arps, cheered the ruling as well, calling it “a significant victory for Americans concerned about the sanctity of their homes.”
“The First Circuit’s now-discarded standard would have allowed officers to demand entry into people’s homes based on subjective and undefined ‘community-caretaking’ needs,” Dvoretzky said in a statement. “In rejecting that standard, the Supreme Court reaffirmed bedrock Fourth Amendment principles, and held that police do not have ‘an open-ended license to perform’ community caretaking tasks in the home.”
Neither the city of Cranston nor its attorney, Marc DeSisto, has returned a request for comment.