Supreme Court hears arguments in Cranston case

Community caretaking’ exception to Fourth Amendment protections central focus of Caniglia v. Strom

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 3/31/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Can police enter a home without a warrant in the interest of "community caretaking"? That is the question before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court as they prepare to render a decision in a case rooted in Cranston. The court

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Supreme Court hears arguments in Cranston case

Community caretaking’ exception to Fourth Amendment protections central focus of Caniglia v. Strom

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Can police enter a home without a warrant in the interest of “community caretaking”?

That is the question before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court as they prepare to render a decision in a case rooted in Cranston.

The court last week heard arguments in Caniglia v. Strom (No. 20-157), a case stemming from an August 2015 incident in which Cranston Police confiscated two firearms from city resident Edward Caniglia as a result of a well-being check.

The name of Robert Strom, the city’s finance director, leads the list of respondents in the case, but others named include Chief of Police Col. Michael Winquist and several members of the city’s Police Department.

Shay Dvoretzky, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Caniglia in the case, cautioned justices that a finding in Cranston’s favor would give police a “blank check” and “essentially blow up” key Fourth Amendment protections regarding the “sanctity of the home.”

He spoke of a “firm line at the door” set out in the Constitution, one that can only be cross with a warrant “unless there is consent or exigent circumstances.” In the Caniglia case, he said, “there was neither.”

Meanwhile, Providence-based attorney Marc DeSisto, representing the city of Cranston, rejected the “absolute all-or-nothing approach” as “contrary to the reasonableness standard” of the Fourth Amendment – which, he added, is its “very touchstone.”

“The question presented is whether caretaking by police officers and first responders may under certain circumstances take place in the home without a warrant,” he told the court. “It should.”

Assistant Solicitor General Morgan Ratner, representing the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed, arguing that “if someone is at risk of serious harm and it’s reasonable for officials to intervene now, that is enough.”

During questioning of the attorneys, justices appeared largely inclined to support the city’s position.

Chief Justice John Roberts opened the questioning by posing a hypothetical situation to Dvoretzky in which a person calls police after being unable to reach an elderly neighbor who had been expected to come over for dinner.

“They’re worried. They ask the police if they can come over and check it out. The police do that. They go on to the property,” he said. “They can’t see much through the windows, but the back door is open. They go in. She’s not there. But she comes back and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ Sues them … for violating her … Fourth Amendment rights. Does she win?

Later he asked whether “the police are violating the Constitution because they walk in the back door to make sure, you know, she’s not … lying on the floor.”

Using phrasing that he repeated several times, Dvoretzky countered that he did not believe the facts set out by Roberts constituted an “objective basis” to justify a warrantless entry into the home. He and the chief justice continued back and forth for a time, with different elements added to the hypothetical situation.

Roberts at one point asked: “Does it matter if we’re talking about … community caretaking, what the community is like? I mean, is it, could it be that, you know, somebody like Andy Mayberry is all right because people expect him to, you know, keep track of things, but, you know, Kojak isn’t?”

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested Dvoretzky’s approach to the question at hand was “too narrow.”

“We can think of lots of circumstances where it’s very reasonable for a policeman to go into the house … And you can, too. We both can,” he said. “So am I just supposed to move the exigent circumstances rules which grew up in a different context to this context, or what?”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she would be “hard pressed to think that any judge would not consider the hypothetical pressed by [Roberts] as justifying a knock and entry by police officers.”

“You have a neighbor who expects an elderly woman to come visit, a known tipster who comes and tells the police she’s never late, and it’s now, she’s really late and there’s no answer,” she said. “I don’t see how, under any circumstance, either the emergency aid or emergency doctrine, exigent circumstance doctrine wouldn’t permit that search.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh at one point described Dvoretzky’s response to Roberts’s hypothetical as “somewhat startling.”

He later added: “[U]nfortunately, the starkest form of your position will lead to officers backing away from going into houses when old people have fallen or there’s concern about that or when there’s a risk of suicide.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett said during her questioning of Dvoretzky: “It sounds odd to me to apply that probable cause standard to the kinds of situations that [Roberts] or Justice Kavanaugh were positing, where you have an elderly person who needs help. There’s no violation.”

The city’s position faced scrutiny, too. During questioning of DeSisto, Roberts posed another hypothetical – this time involving a neighboring family’s cat stuck in a tree, in a locked, fenced-in yard, while they are away. He asked whether such a situation would meet the threshold for police to intervene without violating the Fourth Amendment, given that protections for the home extend to the rest of the property.

“Is that community caretaking?” he asked.

Breyer referenced Rhode Island’s recently adopted “red flag” law allowing people to seize firearms through court order when it is feared their owner may harm themselves or others. He asked DeSisto whether that law had created a standard of reasonableness in the context of the question raised of the Caniglia case.

“My problem is that if you take a caretaker exemption and read that into the word ‘reasonable,’ there’s no stopping. We don’t know how far we’ll go,” he said. “But if you are absolute, you may cause a different problem.”

Justice Samuel Alito told DeSisto “one of the things that is troubling to a lot of people about the caretaking exception is that it doesn’t seem to have any clear boundaries.”

Sotomayor said she is “concerned deeply about the First Circuit’s claim that there is no requirement that officers must select the least intrusive means of fulfilling care, community caretaking responsibilities.” She was critical of the approach taken by police in the Caniglia situation.

“[T]here was no immediate danger, there [was] a readily accessibly alternative that was ignored, and you’re putting into the hands of law enforcement the ability to use their judgment as oopposed to that of the psychiatrists who were treating this man,” she said. “They certainly should have asked the psychiatrists whether they should remove the guns or not. They didn’t do anything.”

Last week’s arguments represent the latest, and likely final, chapter in a lengthy legal case.

According to a 2015 federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Rhode Island on his behalf, the situation began when Caniglia’s wife called police to conduct a “wellness check,” fearing he had harmed himself when she was unable to contact him the day after an argument. During the argument, Caniglia had at one point retrieved an unloaded gun and suggested that his wife shoot him.

While Caniglia agreed to a request from police to undergo an evaluation at Kent Hospital – and was discharged shortly thereafter – police still took the two firearms from his home after his wife showed police where they were stored.

Days later, when both Caniglia and his wife attempted to retrieve the guns from police, they were told a court order would be needed. The weapons were ultimately returned to Caniglia after the ACLU’s suit was filed.

The original lawsuit challenged both the seizure of the weapons by police and the department’s policy against returning any confiscated firearm without a court order.

In 2019, U.S. District Court Chief Judge John McConnell ruled in favor of Cranston Police, finding that “the City operated within its duties to care for the community during the well-being check” – although it also “infringed” on Caniglia’s rights by initially refusing to return the guns. The First Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the District Court ruling.

“Police officers play an important role as community caretakers. As this case illustrates, they sometimes are confronted with peculiar circumstances – circumstances that present them with difficult choices,” the Court of Appeals decision reads. “Here, the actions of the defendant officers, though not letter perfect, did not exceed the proper province of their community caretaking responsibilities.”

In August 2020, Caniglia, represented by Dvoretzky, filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. At issue, that filing reads, is “whether the ‘community caretaking’ exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home.”

In November of last year, the court agreed to hear the case. In the intervening months, a number of organizations – among them the ACLU, the Conservative Legal Defense Fund, the Firearms Policy Coalition, the American Association of Suicidology, and the National Association of Counties – filed briefs in support of either Caniglia or the city of Cranston.

A full audio recording and transcript of the March 24 arguments can be found at supremecourt.gov. A ruling is expected later this year.

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