Supreme Court slams door on warrantless entry into homes for 'community caretaking'

Decision unites Courts' conservatives and liberals


On May 17, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Caniglia v. Strom, in which the City of Cranston (RI) argued police were justified in making warrantless entry into a home and seizing guns under a “community caretaking” exception.

Before Caniglia

Cady v. Dombroski (1973) established such an exception for vehicles when police secured a firearm from an impounded car without a warrant. The Supreme Court subsequently reaffirmed warrantless inventory searches of impounded vehicles as a “community caretaker” activity, finding they were reasonable to protect police from potentially dangerous items and claims they had removed items, and to identify items that required safekeeping.

During an argument with his wife, Caniglia placed a gun on a table and asked her to
During an argument with his wife, Caniglia placed a gun on a table and asked her to "shoot [him] now and get it over with." (Photo/Getty Images)

Caniglia

During an argument with his wife, Caniglia placed a gun on a table and asked her to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” Instead, she went to a hotel. The next morning when he didn’t answer the phone, she requested a wellness check. Officers accompanied her home and, while she waited in a car, they contacted Caniglia.

Caniglia agreed with his wife’s account but said he had no suicidal intent. He consented to a psych evaluation on condition the police did not take his guns. When Caniglia left in an ambulance, officers entered the house and seized two handguns. Caniglia was evaluated and discharged. It took months for him to get his guns back.

Caniglia filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit claiming police violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his home and seized his guns without a warrant.  

I previously wrote about the oral argument before the Supreme Court. It was a bit of a goat rope. The Justices’ questions suggested inner turmoil. They empathized with police being asked to perform community tasks beyond criminal investigations ­– from treed cats to an elderly person living alone who didn’t show up for a dinner invite. They struggled to balance that interest against the sanctity of the home and its curtilage.

Given the attorneys’ arguments of far-reaching consequences whichever way the Court ruled, and the wrestling and waffling of the Justices, I was surprised with the brevity and unanimity of the Court’s 9-0 decision.

The ruling

The four-page majority opinion written by Justice Thomas contained none of the angst displayed at oral argument. HELD – the community caretaking function permitting warrantless searches of impounded vehicles does not apply to homes. Justice Thomas noted the Cady decision had expressly drawn a constitutional distinction between vehicles and homes.

What’s a cop supposed to do?

In his concurring opinion, Justice Roberts noted nothing in the Court’s ruling in Caniglia impacted the long-recognized warrant exception for “exigent circumstances” – warrantless entry is justified when “there was an objectively reasonable basis for believing that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger.”

In Minnesota v. Olson, the Court held warrantless entry into private premises is permissible when officers have probable cause for:

  • Hot pursuit of a fleeing felon;
  • Preventing the imminent destruction of evidence;
  • Preventing a suspect's escape; or
  • To alleviate a risk of danger to police or other persons inside or outside the dwelling – taking into consideration the gravity of the crime and likelihood that the suspect is armed.

Officers need to understand exigent circumstances and articulate them in any report setting out the facts of a warrantless entry into a home. For assistance, ask your local prosecutor.

Remember, “consent” is an exception to the warrant requirement. Consent wasn’t argued in Caniglia, because the officers did not communicate or misrepresented to Caniglia’s wife his statement about the officers not confiscating his guns. Had this not occurred, the officers might have been able to attain valid consent from her.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito raised several situations the Court’s ruling did not address, leaving them to local police, prosecutors, and judges:

  • What kind of warrantless short-term seizure is justified to ascertain whether a person presents an imminent risk of suicide if, unlike Caniglia, they don’t consent to an evaluation?
  • State laws allowing emergency seizures for psychiatric treatment, observation, or stabilization vary – including who may request the action, reasons that can justify it, the necessity of a judicial proceeding, and the nature of the proceeding. (Accordingly, officers need to know their state’s law regarding such seizures if they may be doing them.)
  • What about people, particularly the elderly, who live alone, might have fallen or otherwise suffered a medical condition, need aid, and are unable to summon help? Caniglia’s attorney had argued such an entry would not be unjustified without a warrant. But warrants aren’t issued for medical checks. Justice Alito recommended states might want to institute procedures for police to follow in such circumstances – just as they are enacting “red flag” laws for police to seize guns to prevent violence.

Expect Fourth Amendment challenges to “red flag” laws and any laws authorizing police to conduct warrantless, nonconsensual medical or welfare checks that don’t rise to “exigent circumstances.”

In the meantime …

It’s not easy protecting and serving. It’s physically dangerous and intellectually challenging. Thank you. In the meantime, "be careful out there."

NEXT: Iowa Supreme Court bars warrantless police searches of trash

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