First Circuit expands law enforcement “community caretaking” function exception

Court authorizes warrantless entries into homes and seizures of persons and firearms when officers have objectively reasonable belief public safety is in jeopardy


On August 20, 2015, Edward Caniglia and his wife Kim had an argument in their Cranston, Rhode Island, home. Caniglia went into a bedroom and grabbed his handgun. He threw the gun on the dining room table and said something like, “Shoot me now and get it over with.” He left the house in his vehicle and his wife returned the gun to the bedroom but hid the magazine.

Caniglia returned to his home and engaged his wife in a second argument. The wife decided to spend the night in a nearby hotel and left the residence. She later spoke to Caniglia by phone and thought that he sounded upset and a little angry.

She called her home the next morning but failed to reach her husband. Concerned that he might have harmed himself or committed suicide, she called the Cranston Police Department (CPD) and asked for assistance. An officer met with her and then called the husband by phone. Caniglia agreed to speak to the officer in person at his home.

The court focused on the scope of the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. (Photo/Pixabay)
The court focused on the scope of the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. (Photo/Pixabay)

Four officers went to the residence and spoke to Caniglia on the back porch while his wife waited in her car. Caniglia corroborated his wife’s account of events to the officers, adding that he was sick of the arguments and that he “couldn’t take it anymore.” He denied that he was suicidal but refused to answer questions about his mental health.

Sergeant Barth, the ranking officer on scene, determined that Caniglia was imminently dangerous to himself and others. After some hesitation, Caniglia agreed to be transported by ambulance to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

Caniglia was taken to the hospital unaccompanied by the police. After he left, Sgt Barth, with the telephonic approval of his captain, entered the home with the wife and seized two guns, magazines for both and ammunition. Caniglia was evaluated at the hospital but not admitted as an in-patient.

The firearms were returned to Caniglia in December 2015 and shortly thereafter he sued the involved officers, the colonel in charge of the CPD and the city. He sued pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Federal Civil Rights Statute) and alleged that the seizure of his person, and the warrantless entry of his home and seizure of his firearms, violated his Fourth and Second Amendment rights. The Federal District Court ruled in favor of the defendants with one exception not relevant to this discussion and Caniglia appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court. [1]

The court began its analysis by observing that there was some evidence in the record to indicate that Caniglia consented to go to the hospital for a mental health evaluation and that his wife consented to the police entry into the home and the seizure of the firearms. Nonetheless, the court decided to assume that both the seizure of the plaintiff, the entry into the home and seizure of the firearms were all done without consent.

The court next focused on the scope of the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement first articulated by the Supreme Court in its decision Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). In Cady, the Supreme Court upheld the warrantless search of the trunk of a disabled vehicle when police reasonably believed that the trunk contained a gun that might fall into the hands of vandals. The Supreme Court ruled that police officers in certain circumstances have a right to protect the public safety outside the context of a criminal inquiry without violating the Fourth Amendment. The Court explained that these “community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute” are constitutionally proper when “executed in a reasonable manner pursuant to either state law or sound police procedure.’”

First Circuit Expands the Community Caretaking Exception Beyond Vehicles

The court stated, “Today, we join ranks with those courts that have extended the community caretaking exception beyond the motor vehicle context.” [2] “A police officer – over and above his weighty responsibilities for enforcing the criminal law – must act as a master of all emergencies, who is ‘expected to aid those in distress, combat actual hazards, prevent potential hazards … and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’”

Accordingly, the court set forth specific guidelines for law enforcement use of the community caretaking exception both within the motor vehicle context and beyond:

  • Police officers must have “solid, non-investigatory reasons for engaging in community caretaking activities.”
  • “They may not use the doctrine as a mere subterfuge for investigation.”
  • Use of the exception “must be based on specific articulable facts sufficient to establish that an officer’s decision to act … was justified on objective grounds.”
  • Police actions must “draw their essence either from state law or from sound police procedure.” The court explained that sound police procedure is not limited to situations involving “established protocols or fixed criteria” but can be more broadly based upon “officers’ reasonable choices.” [3]
  • “Community caretaking tasks must be narrowly circumscribed, both in scope and duration, to match what is reasonably required to perform [the necessary] functions.”

The Seizure of Caniglia

The court applied these requirements to the seizure of Caniglia and determined that the seizure was reasonable pursuant to the police community caretaking responsibility because he presented an imminent risk of harming himself or others.

The court concluded that the officers acted in unison with sound police procedure in seizing him and sending him to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. The court noted that Rhode Island statutory law also authorized Caniglia's seizure but said that the seizure was likewise authorized under the community caretaking doctrine described herein.

The Warrantless Home Entry and Firearms Seizure

The court ruled that “the officers could reasonably have believed, based upon the facts known to them at the time, that leaving the guns in the plaintiff’s home, accessible to him, posed a serious threat of immediate harm.”

The court observed that an objectively reasonable officer could have perceived a real possibility that the plaintiff might refuse an evaluation and return home shortly thereafter in the same troubled mental state.

The court concluded that law enforcement’s entry into the home and the seizure of his firearms were consistent with sound police procedure. The court notably observed that the police did not engage in a frenzied top to bottom search of the residence but tailored their movements to the location of the firearms, aided by plaintiffs’ wife.

Conclusion

This case offers a valuable tool to law enforcement officers within the jurisdiction of the First Circuit by extending the “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement beyond motor vehicles to the entry of homes and the seizure of persons and firearms. This case authorizes police officers in the interest of public safety to enter private property and seize persons and property without a warrant when danger to the community is present. This can now be lawfully accomplished when officers possess specific articulable facts to support an objectively reasonable basis for their actions. The court warned law enforcement not to use this exception as a subterfuge for criminal investigatory purposes. Police action in this regard must be grounded in state law or sound police procedure.

References

1. Caniglia v. Strom, (N0. 19-1764) (Ist Cir. March 13, 2020). The First Circuit has jurisdiction over law enforcement activities in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and the territory of Puerto Rico.

2. The First Circuit identified several other federal circuits that have recognized that the ‘community caretaking” doctrine allows warrantless entries onto private premises, including homes in particular circumstances and cited the following cases: Rodriguez v. City of San Jose, 930 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir.2019); United States v. Smith, 820 F.3d 356 (8th Cir. 2016); United States v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. York, 895 F.2d 1026 (5th Cir. 1990). Two circuits have refused to apply the community caretaking function to justify warrantless entries into private homes. See, Sutterfield v. City of Milwaukee, 751 F.3d 542 (7th Cir. 2014) and Ray v. Township of Warren, 626 F.3d 170 (3d Cir. 2010). The court also cited cases from other federal circuits that have approved application of the community caretaking function to the warrantless seizures of persons or property other than vehicles. These cases include, Rodriguez v. City of San Jose, 930 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir. 2019; Vargas v. City of Philadelphia, 783 F.3d 962 (3d Cir. 2015); United States v. Gilmore, 776 F.3d 765 (10th Cir. 2015); Samuelson v. City of New Ulm, 455 F.3d 871 (8th Cir. 2006); United States v. Rideau, 949 F. 2d 718 (5th Cir. 1992) (vacated on other grounds).

3. It is nonetheless wise for police departments to establish clear and specific written policy procedures for taking persons into custody in the absence of criminal conduct when that person represents a danger to himself or others. Likewise, similar written policy procedures should be created to direct officers regarding the warrantless entry into private places and the warrantless seizure of personal property. These policies should emphasize the need for specific articulable facts to support a decision to act on the basis of protecting the lives and safety of persons within the community.

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