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Caniglia v. Strom

ArgumentMarch 24, 2021
Petitioner BriefEdward A. Caniglia
Respondent BriefRobert F. Strom
Opinion BelowFirst Circuit Court of Appeals

Supreme Court To Address Limits of Police Power in the Name of Public Safety

Public safety is a shared responsibility. Law enforcement officers (the “Police”) are one of the parties empowered to enforce the laws, rules, and norms necessary for the preservation of public safety. Generally, Police contribute to public safety through their shared mandate to control crime, mediate and arbitrate disputes, regulate traffic, and help in emergencies. When reasonable under the circumstances, Police may use their mandate to legally use force and deprive citizens of their liberty.

When is it legal for Police to use force and deprive citizens of their liberty? The U.S. Supreme Court has found itself repeatedly balancing the competing interests of individual liberty and the Police’s mandate to preserve public safety. And the Supreme Court is reluctant to unduly impede the Police from doing their job.

The Supreme Court is poised to balance these competing interests once again in Caniglia v. Strom, which addresses Fourth Amendment protections.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This constitutional protection requires the Police to obtain a lawfully executed warrant prior to depriving citizens of their liberty, including searching any home or property (Mincey v. Arizona (1978)). A warrant is a written order signed by a court authorizing the Police’s search, seizure, or arrest. To secure a warrant, the Police must provide a sworn, detailed statement that provides a reasonably trustworthy basis for a person of reasonable caution to believe that a criminal offense was committed or is about to take place (Carroll v. United States (1925)).

In its attempt to balance the competing interests of citizens and the Police, the Supreme Court “jealously and carefully” drew exceptions to the warrant requirement (Jones v. United States (1958)). In these “carefully defined classes of cases,” the Supreme Court determined that warrantless Police action is “reasonable” under certain circumstances based on what is known to the Police in these circumstances (Cady v. Dombrowski (1973)). One of the exceptions to the warrant requirement is the “community caretaking” exception.

The Community Caretaking Exception

The community caretaking exception to the search warrant requirement was first articulated in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973). In Cady, an off-duty law enforcement officer got into a car accident. The off-duty officer was in a rental car. The Police towed the rental car after the accident and took the off-duty officer to the hospital. For “elemental reasons of safety,” the Police searched the rental car for the off-duty officer’s service weapon to avoid it “fall[ing] into untrained or perhaps malicious hands.” While searching the trunk of the off-duty officer’s rental car, the Police found evidence that a murder had been committed.

The Supreme Court in Cady held that the Police did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched the trunk of the rental car without a warrant. Instead, the Court recognized that the Police have community caretaking functions that are “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”

The Cady Court emphasized, however, that “there is a constitutional difference between houses and cars,” creating a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment that is specific to vehicles taken under police custody or control. The Court listed three bases for their rationalization. First, there is a reduced expectation of privacy in vehicles. Second, taking a non-criminal inventory of items in vehicles under Police custody or control is standard procedure. Finally, following the established standard procedures for car stops serves as a check on Police discretion.

“Well Check” Gone Awry

Edward Caniglia is a 63-year-old gunowner with no criminal history and no record of violence, misuse of guns, or self-harm. On August 20, 2015, Mr. and Mrs. Caniglia, a married couple of 27 years, had an argument. Dramatically, Mr. Caniglia retrieved his gun, placed it on a table, and told Mrs. Caniglia, “why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?” Mrs. Caniglia decided to spend the night at a motel.

Mrs. Caniglia called Mr. Caniglia the next morning. He did not answer any of her calls. She got worried that her husband might have harmed himself. Mrs. Caniglia asked the Police to check on Mr. Caniglia and escort her home. At the house, the Police had a non-confrontational encounter with Mr. Caniglia. The Police concluded there was a risk Mr. Caniglia could harm himself and asked Mr. Caniglia to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. He did. The Police “did not consult any specific psychological or psychiatric criteria” or medical professionals in reaching this conclusion.

To ensure everyone’s safety, the Police asked Mr. Caniglia to surrender his guns. Mr. Caniglia refused. The Police gave Mr. Caniglia a choice: either surrender his guns or agree to go with the Police to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Mr. Caniglia chose the latter.

While Mr. Caniglia was at the hospital, the Police returned to the Caniglia home without a warrant and seized the two guns without the Caniglias’ consent and absent any exigent circumstance. The Police believed, without consulting or training in “any specific psychological or psychiatric criteria,” that it was reasonable to seize the firearms based on Mr. Caniglia’s state of mind. The Police feared that Mr. Caniglia and others could be in danger if the guns remained in the home.

Mr. Caniglia was evaluated and discharged the same day. The Caniglias made several attempts to retrieve their firearms from the Police. Eventually, in December, through Caniglia’s lawyer, the Police returned the firearms to Mr. Caniglia.

Mr. Caniglia filed a lawsuit over the seizure of his firearms. Among other things, Mr. Caniglia argued that the seizure of his firearms was a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment. The Police argued that their nonconsensual and warrantless entry and seizures was justified under their “community caretaking” function, which is an exception to the warrant requirement.

Reasoning that the Police’s “community caretaking” function could be required outside the context of vehicles, including in homes, the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island found the warrantless seizures “reasonable.” On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed, holding that the “community caretaking” exception can apply in the context of a private home, as it did in Caniglia’s case.

Extending the “Community Caretaking” Exception to Homes?

In answering whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home, the Supreme Court is once again called upon to balance between the competing interests of individual rights and the Police’s mandate to preserve public safety.

According to established Supreme Court jurisprudence, “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed” (United States v. U.S. Dist. Ct. (1972)). The Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement provides “a principal protection against unnecessary intrusions” into the home by “agents of the government” (Welsh v. Wisconsin (1984)). The Court repeatedly and emphatically draws a distinction between privacy in a vehicle privacy in the home. The privacy of the home is “too precious to entrust to the discretion of those whose job is the detection of crime and the arrest of criminals” (McDonald v. United States (1948)).

The Case for Caniglia

Against that backdrop, Caniglia argues that the “community caretaking” function was conceived by the Cady Court as a narrow and strict exception with a limited application, only to vehicles under police custody. Therefore, absent consent or exigent circumstances, the purpose of the Police in any warrantless intrusion is immaterial and all warrantless intrusions of the home are unreasonable.

The Case for Strom

The Police argue their “community caretaking” function extends beyond the context of vehicles. Police routinely conduct well check visits in homes as part of their “community caretaking” function. Therefore, limiting the exception to vehicles is inconsistent with the practical needs of the community. Waiting until there are exigent circumstances to perform a bona-fide caretaking function means waiting until serious injury or death occurs.

To avail the public from Police overreach, the Police emphasize the Supreme Court’s established “objective reasonableness” standard, which is used to evaluate the legality of Police conduct. The police argue that it is objectively reasonable for them to seize firearms from a gunowner when they have reason to believe that the gunowner or others could be in danger if the guns remained in the home. Accordingly, the exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement relating to the Police’s “community caretaking” function should naturally extend to the home.

The Assumption of Police as “Community Caretakers”

How is the function of the Police determined? Are Police trained for that function? The Supreme Court is not poised to answer any of these questions. It is arguably prudent, however, to consider how Police are trained and how they function.

When signing the 1994 crime bill, President Bill Clinton described the Police as “the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day.” President Clinton endorsed the mythos of the “warrior cop,” which was initially formulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “Great Society” agenda. President Johnson declared the Police were the “frontline soldiers” in the War on Crime. Today, this “warrior mindset” is an extolled virtue in Police training materials—books, articles, interviews, and seminars.

Are Police Warriors, Social Workers, or Both?

Despite training and operating within a culture that takes pride in warriorship, combat, and violence, Police are routinely called upon to serve in a social worker capacity, such as in the case of the Caniglias. This mismatch at the heart of American policing often yields devastating, if not deadly, results. Consider, for example, how Police responded to loitering, possible use of counterfeit currency, an intoxicated person sleeping their own car, recreational use of marijuana, minor traffic infractions, or someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

It may be “objectively reasonable” for a “community caretaking” function to extend to homes, requiring an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. But is this critical societal role appropriately assigned to the Police, or is it aspirational?

The Justices will hear arguments on March 24, 2021.

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About the Author

Abdel-Rahman Hamed

Abdel-Rahman Hamed

Abdel-Rahman Hamed is an attorney practicing criminal law and is concerned with fundamental fairness.

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