SCOTUS rules woman can sue police under Fourth Amendment even though she was never officially ‘seized’

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The following article contains editorial content written by a retired chief of police and current staff writer for Law Enforcement Today. 

WASHINGTON, DC- Remember back when conservatives widely defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh against sexual misconduct allegations during his confirmation hearings?

Yeah, good times.

Of course Kavanaugh, nominated to the high court by President Donald Trump was touted as a “structuralist,” meaning he did not believe the Constitution is, as liberals call it a “living, breathing document.”

This past week, Kavanaugh once again gave the virtual middle finger to conservatives and law enforcement in a bizarre ruling where he sided with the three liberal nutjobs on the court, along with gutless turncoat Chief Justice John Roberts.

“Pack the court?”

Looks like it’s pretty packed already and not in a good way for police.

The ruling came in a case which will have profound negative effects on law enforcement officers.

On Thursday, in a 5-3 decision, with newest turncoat Justice Amy Coney-Barrett recusing herself from the decision, the court expanded the ability of people to sue police officers for excessive force, according to Reuters.

The case involved a New Mexico woman who sued police after she was shot by police officers whom she had mistaken as carjackers.

Under the decision, the woman, Roxanne Torres may continue to pursue her lawsuit which accused New Mexico State Police officers Richard Williamson and Janice Madrid of violating the Fourth Amendment ban on illegal searches and seizures, even though she had not been either detained, or seized in the incident. The ruling effectively provides a large swath in which people may now claim they are “seized” by the police.

The ruling means that in order to sue police for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, people no longer have to be “physically” seized by police. It is a bizarre expansion of the word “seizure.”

“We hold that the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued,” Roberts wrote in the ruling.

The three Constitutional conservatives on the court—Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito dissented. Barrett meanwhile didn’t participate in the decision because she had not yet been sworn in when the case was argued last October.

In his dissent, Gorsuch said a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment has always been defined as “taking possession of someone or something,” while sharply criticizing the court’s majority opinion to the contrary.

“That view is as mistaken as it is novel,” Gorsuch wrote.

Gorsuch continued in a scathing rebuke of the majority opinion, the Washington Examiner reported.

“The majority’s need to resort to such a schizophrenic reading of the word ‘seizure’ should be a signal that something has gone seriously wrong,” Gorsuch wrote. 

“Today, for the first time, the majority seeks to equate seizures and criminal arrests with mere touches, attempted seizures and batteries.” 

With the ruling, the case now is remanded back to the lower court, where it could be dismissed on certain other grounds, including qualified immunity, a doctrine which liberals throughout the country are trying to eliminate.

That doctrine protects police, as well as other government officials (read politicians) from civil litigation in certain circumstances. Ironically, moves by liberal politicians to remove the qualified immunity doctrine from law enforcement officers has not similarly included its removal from politicians.

The incident in question involves a 2014 case where four officers were sitting at an apartment complex in Albuquerque and approached Torres, who was sitting in a car.

Torres claimed she fled when she saw people with guns approaching, believing that she was going to be carjacked. Both officers fired 13 shots between them as Torres fled, hitting her twice in the back as she drove off.

The woman continued driving, however was arrested the next day after she was treated for her wounds at a hospital. She was convicted on three criminal offenses, which also included fleeing from a law enforcement officer.

Torres sued in federal court in New Mexico in 2016, which was dismissed by the judge citing the fact there could be no excessive force claim due to the fact a “seizure” had not in fact occurred.

Likewise, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reached the same conclusion in 2019, whereby Torres appealed to the Supreme Court.

This particular case is one of a handful of cases before the high court involving police powers. Rulings in the other cases are due by the end of June.

If the rulings in this case, as well as other high-profile cases involving election fraud from the presidential election are any barometer, it is likely the court will widely broaden the ability of people to sue the police.

Taken in concert with the move to eliminate qualified immunity, it will become increasingly difficult to attract men and women into the law enforcement profession.

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Meanwhile, we recently reported on the Supreme Court hearing arguments on whether it is constitutionally permittable for police to make warrantless searches of people’s homes under a “community caretaking” function.

This will have wide-ranging consequences on numerous gun-grabbing laws enacted and proposed nationwide. 

For more on that, we invite you to:

DIG DEEPER

WASHINGTON, DC – In a case that could have wide-ranging effects on policing in America, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments next month to decide if police can make warrantless searches of a private residence under the “community caretaking” doctrine.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from warrantless searches as one of America’s basic rights.  

Before a police officer or other government official can enter a private home, they must show a judge probable cause that an item is present and that a crime has been committed.

If the judge finds there is sufficient probable cause, a search warrant is issued.

There are widely-accepted exceptions, called “exigent circumstance,” for emergency situations.

These exigent circumstances involved protection of life and evidence. If an officer sees suspects destroying evidence through a window, he can enter the home to stop the destruction.

Also, if an officer sees someone having a heart attack, the officer can enter the home to render aid.

Other than these exigent circumstances, the courts have also defined a “community caretaking” doctrine to the Fourth Amendment when it comes to policing.

In the Supreme Court case of Cady v. Dombrowski, the court held that under certain circumstances, the police may search a motor vehicle without first obtaining a warrant if they are engaged in a “community caretaking” function, meaning a duty wholly divorced from the investigation of a crime or the enforcement of criminal laws.

The Supreme Court said the “community protection” exception did not violate the Fourth Amendment because:

“(Police perform) community custody functions, totally separate from detection, investigation or acquisition. evidence relating to the violation of a criminal law.”

The “community caretaking” doctrine was not limited by the court to emergency situations like exigent circumstances are. If the officer has “reasonable” cause to believe there is a danger to the community, a warrantless search is permissible.

The Constitutional Accountability Center pointed out that the ruling in Cady v. Dombrowski has been widely interpreted by lower courts to allow room for the application of the exception in a private home:

“The Court made clear, however, that the exception applied only to motor vehicles and did not extend to people’s homes.  Despite the clear line drawn by the Court, numerous lower courts have extended the community caretaking exception to allow warrantless entries into, and seizures from, people’s homes.”

In the case of Caniglia v. Strom, the Supreme Court is considering whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement should extend to the home. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month.

The case involves Cranston, Rhode Island residents Mr. and Mrs. Caniglia. The couple was arguing inside their residence, and the husband put an unloaded handgun on the kitchen table and told his wife, “shoot me now and finish this.”

The wife called the police, and when they arrived, the police convinced the husband to go to the hospital by ambulance for a crisis evaluation. The wife then told police that her husband kept two guns in the home.

Police conducted a warrantless search of the home.

The wife’s consent was invalid because the officers falsely told her that the husband had already consented to the seizure of the guns. Police located and seized both firearms.

The officers had told the wife that her husband could pick up the firearms at the police station. However, when Mr. Caniglia tried to pick up the weapons, he was told it was department policy not to return weapons without a court order.

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the Cranston Police Department, challenging the seizure of the firearms without a warrant and the department’s policy against returning weapons without a court order.

The federal district court agreed the department policy was unconstitutional but ruled the warrantless search and seizure was lawful under the “community caretaking” exception. The Federal Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

In siding with police, the Federal Court of Appeals said:

“At its core, the doctrine of community protection is designed to give police the flexibility to take appropriate action when unforeseen circumstances present a transient risk that requires immediate attention.

“Understanding the main object of the doctrine leads inexorably to the conclusion that it should not be limited to the context of the motor vehicle. Threats to individual and community safety are not limited to highways.”

Mr. Canigilia hired Attorney Shay Dvoretzy of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as private counsel and brought the case to the Supreme Court. The court agreed to hear the case to decide whether the ‘community caretaking” exception can be applied to the warrantless search of a person’s home.

The ACLU of Rhode Island filed a “friend of the court” brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, saying:

“It (The court case) raises significant issues concerning the scope of Fourth Amendment protections and police warrantless searches of the home.”

Their brief also argued that an unfavorable ruling by the court would give police too much authority:

“give police free rein to enter the home without probable cause or a warrant, whenever they think it is ‘reasonable’ to do so.”

The ACLU argued in the brief that there were only two acceptable exceptions to the Fourth Amendment protection from warrantless searches:

“(The Supreme Court) has held that warrantless home entry is constitutional in just two narrow settings:  consent of an occupant or exigent circumstances.

“The [lower] courts have taken a doctrine developed for the reduced expectation of privacy associated with impounded vehicles, and applied it to the home, the apex of privacy, without justification.”

In a brief filed by the respondents, Attorney Marc DeSisto wrote:

“Courts routinely allow officers to enter a residence without a warrant if the circumstances are dire and the officers’ actions are both limited and based on sound police procedure.

“Even the few decisions that have declined the application of the community caretaking doctrine to private property recognize that police officers can—and should—respond to urgent situations in the home involving the potential for violence or injury without being required to obtain a warrant.”

The brief said that the argument is especially true if there are no criminal consequences to the search:

“Numerous courts have allowed warrantless entry to keep the peace, some under the name of ‘community caretaking’ and several employing the ‘exigent circumstances’ or ‘emergency aid’ exceptions. Neither of the latter two exceptions precisely fit the unique circumstances of this case, but it is the legal theory, and not the nomenclature, that must carry the day.”

The brief said that there is no good reason to limit the “community caretaking” standard to automobiles because the issue was not whether the firearm in Cady was in a vehicle, but that the firearm was in an accessible location where it could pose an imminent danger. The brief wrote:

“While recognizing the difference between an automobile and a home, this Court did not limit Cady to automobile searches. Rather, it simply applied the community caretaking concept to the facts before it. The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit law enforcement officers from diffusing a volatile situation in a home to protect the residents or others.”

The respondents ended their brief by saying the lower court’s ruling did not give police unrestrained authority to conduct warrantless searches but gave them the ability to save lives:

“The First Circuit did not give law enforcement carte blanche to search a home for contraband or weapons. Rather, the First Circuit established clear, constitutionally sound guidelines for law enforcement given the unique facts of this case, where no criminal charges were brought and where a focused search and seizure ensured that a dangerous situation had been averted.”

The Supreme Court has scheduled case arguments for March 24, 2021. Law Enforcement Today will follow the case and provide updates as the court case develops.

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