Supreme Court to determine if police can enter a house and take guns without obtaining a warrant

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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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