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Supreme Court mulls police power to enter homes without warrant

The case involves a 2015 incident where officers took a man’s guns after his wife, fearing he was suicidal, called police

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Katie Mulvaney
By Providence Journal

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The question of whether Cranston police overstepped a local gun owner’s rights when officers seized his weapons after directing him to get a psychiatric evaluation elicited vigorous back and forth Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue is whether the police were shielded by their roles as community caretakers responding to a potential crisis.

The case — which encompasses the sanctity of one’s home, gun rights, and police officers’ duty to make snap decisions in myriad situations — involved the 2015 seizure of two guns from 68-year-old Edward Caniglia after his wife alerted police that she feared he was suicidal and requested an escort to their home.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. in 2019 ruled that the officers were acting in keeping with their duty to protect the public when they sent Caniglia to get evaluated and seized his guns without a warrant. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision a year later.

“Police officers must sometimes make on-the-spot judgments in harrowing and swiftly evolving circumstances. Such considerations argue persuasively in favor of affording the police some reasonable leeway in the performance of their community caretaking responsibilities,” Senior Circuit Judge Bruce Selya wrote for the appeals court.

Caniglia sought a Supreme Court review, challenging the ruling as an unconstitutional expansion of the community-caretaking exception.

The Supreme Court in 1973 held that police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched the trunk of a car that had been towed without a warrant. Courts nationwide have since been split on whether those protections should be extended into homes.

“The Fourth Amendment recognizes the sanctity of the home by drawing a firm line at the door,” Shay Dvoretzky told the court in arguing for Caniglia. “The government cannot cross that line without a warrant unless there is consent or exigent circumstances. Here, there is neither.”

If let stand, Dvoretzky said, police officers would have a “blank check” to enter homes without a warrant whenever they claimed to be acting in the community’s interest or were assisting a person in need.

Chief Justice John Roberts proposed a scenario in which neighbors called the police after growing concerned about an elderly dinner guest who was usually punctual but failed to arrive. If officers found that person’s back door open and went in to conduct a wellness check, would they be protected from liability?

Officers should not go beyond the home’s threshold without first securing a warrant or being faced with a “true” and imminent emergency, Dvoretzky said.

Dvoretzky argued officers had no reason to think that Caniglia was in immediate risk of harm at the time of the incident as he denied being suicidal.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondered if such a hard stance would compel officers to delay action in cases in which time is of the essence.

“You want them to hesitate and I really question that,” Kavanaugh said.

Marc DeSisto argued for Cranston that the all-or-nothing approach taken by Caniglia, that there must be a warrant or emergency circumstance, runs counter to the reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment. Community caretaking in homes without a warrant should be allowed when it is objectively reasonable to do so, he said.

Justice Samuel Alito and others voiced concern that the lower court ruling left no clear boundaries on what constitutes community caretaking. Justice Sonia Sotomayor cautioned, too, that the appeals court did not instruct police to exercise least intrusive means to undertake community caretaking.

Sotomayor faulted police for seizing the guns without first consulting the treating psychiatrists about whether such a step was necessary, instead deciding on their own.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked DeSisto if police would be empowered to enter a home in which a crowd of people were not wearing masks, despite mask mandates during the pandemic.

Yes, DeSisto said, they would have the authority to disperse the gathering. He emphasized that police would not be acting in an investigatory role, but in their roles protecting the community.

Cranston received backing from the U.S. Department of Justice. Morgan L. Ratner, assistant to the solicitor general, argued that often there is no warrant process for duties such as safeguarding elderly adults and conducting wellness checks. Entry without a warrant should be justified in cases when people are at serious risk of harm in a current and ongoing crisis and the actions are reasonable to address the potential risk, she said.

The case stems from an Aug. 20, 2015 argument Caniglia had with his wife, Kim, in which he retrieved an unloaded gun and said, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.”

Kim hid the gun under a mattress. The dispute continued, spurring Kim to pack a bag and spend the night at a hotel. She called Cranston police for assistance the next morning after Caniglia failed to pick up his phone.

Officers at the scene questioned Caniglia, who told an account similar to his wife’s but said he would never commit suicide. Officers sent him to Kent Hospital for an evaluation, a step Caniglia said he only agreed to with the assurance that police wouldn’t take his guns. Officers instead seized the guns and ammunition after his wife showed him where they were. She was told, she said, that her husband had agreed to the seizure. Caniglia was released from the hospital the same day.

Caniglia, backed by the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the city of Cranston and the police after they refused to return the guns without a court order.

The ACLU, along with a diverse group of gun interests, filed briefs in support of Caniglia’s Supreme Court arguments. A collection of states asked the high court to let the appeals ruling stand, arguing a reversal could leave police officers hesitant to take immediate action.

Rhode Island enacted a red flag law in 2018, after Caniglia brought his case. That law allows for police to remove firearms, by court order, from a person who poses a significant danger to self or others.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: US Supreme Court takes up 2015 gun seizure by Cranston police

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