945 N. Stone Ave., Suite 100, Tucson, AZ, 85705

SCOTUS Takes on Fourth Amendment Case via the Police’s “Community Caretaking” Exception

 Posted on March 08, 2021 in Arizona Gun Laws

Arizona gun law attorneysThe Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable search and seizure, with subsequent court rulings declaring any warrantless search is unreasonable. Courts have established a handful of exceptions to the warrant requirement. Some of these exceptions allow police to enter private property if there is a compelling and immediate reason why they would need to intervene, and do not have time to obtain a search warrant from a judge. If police observe a murder about to happen inside a private home or business, for example, they would be allowed to respond immediately under this rule.

The “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment is unique from other exceptions because it does not require an immediate, urgent reason for police intervention. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973) that police were allowed to seize guns out of an impounded vehicle without a warrant based on a police claim that the guns were being removed to prevent them from being stolen. The court ruled that police should be able to perform duties that take care of the community, provided their actions are “totally divorced” from the investigation of a crime.

This decision meant that police could perform a warrantless search and/or seizure, without having probable cause—which is required for a warrant—as long as these actions are not connected to a criminal investigation. However, the Court emphasized in Cady the “constitutional difference between houses and cars.”

Ever since the Cady decision, courts have been split over whether the community caretaking exception also applies to the home. Courts such as the First, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits argue that the community caretaking exception applies to homes as well as automobiles.

In 2015, the Arizona Supreme Court decided in State v. Wilson that the community caretaking exception does not apply to homes. In this case, police responded to several 911 calls due to Wilson’s erratic behavior. Wilson claimed he had up to seven pounds of mercury, a toxic substance, in his house. Police searched the home without a warrant and found no mercury, but instead located several marijuana plants. Wilson was charged with production of marijuana and three counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. A trial court ruled that the search was permissible because of the community caretaking exception, but an appeals court disagreed and reversed the decision.

When this case reached the Arizona Supreme Court, Chief Justice Bales wrote that if the community caretaking exception applied to homes as well as vehicles, it would “substantially reduce” citizens’ protection of privacy without significantly increasing the ability of the police to perform searches that protect the public.

In that case, the Court acknowledged a lesser expectation of privacy in cars than in homes. The Court agreed with the Seventh Circuit ruling that the Cady decision intended to limit the community caretaking exception to apply to vehicles and prevent the expansion of warrantless searches in private homes or businesses.

On November 20, 2020, The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take on a case that would address the split between courts. Caniglia v. Strom involves Edward Caniglia, a 68-year-old man with no criminal history and no record of violence. On August 20, 2015, Mr. Caniglia had a disagreement with his wife inside their home in Cranston, Rhode Island. As the argument escalated, Mr. Caniglia retrieved his unloaded gun, placed it in front of Mrs. Caniglia and dramatically said, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.”

Mrs. Caniglia threatened to call 911 but did not. She left the home and stayed at a hotel for the night. The next morning, she called Mr. Caniglia who did not answer, and she became worried about his safety. She called for the police to perform a wellness check. When officers made contact with Mr. Caniglia at the home, he was described by the police as “calm” and “normal.” He explained to them that he would never commit suicide, but despite all evidence of normalcy the officers thought there was a risk that Mr. Caniglia would harm himself. They called a rescue lieutenant from the local fire department to take Mr. Caniglia to the hospital. He agreed to go after the police told him they would not take his two handguns. He was examined by a social worker at the hospital and was discharged the same day.

Back at the house, police officers told Mrs. Caniglia that her husband consented to his guns being seized. She allowed the police to enter the home, showed them where the guns were, and the police took them. When Mrs. Caniglia went to the police station a few days later to retrieve the guns, officers refused her request. A month later, she was refused again. The Caniglias’ lawyer requested the guns on their behalf and was also rejected.

The police claim they seized the guns from the home because they feared that Mr. Caniglia and others could be in danger if the guns remained there. Their only justification for the entry and seizure was the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Caniglia sued the City of Cranston and the involved officers in federal court. He claimed that the police violated his Second Amendment, Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights. After he sued, his guns were returned to him.

The District Court of Rhode Island ruled that the officers’ actions were reasonable and that the warrantless entry and seizure was covered by the community caretaking exception. The First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, stating that the officers’ actions were “reasonable and consistent with good police practices.”

The Caniglia case is a civil lawsuit; no criminal charges were filed against Mr. Caniglia regarding this incident. 42 U.S. Code § 1983 provides an individual person the right to sue their government for federal civil rights violations, in this case, Fourth Amendment rights. A “1983” lawsuit applies to individuals who misuse the authority that they get from state law, such as police officers. This kind of lawsuit can earn a plaintiff monetary damages or injunctive relief, which is a court order that requires specific action.

Caniglia v. Strom is scheduled for argument on March 24, 2021.





Share this post:
Back to Top