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The Obscure Supreme Court Case That Could Radically Redefine Police Powers

What began as a minor domestic dispute is now a legal time bomb that could grant cops expanded search and seizure rights.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

Why is the United States so reliant on police officers for basic social services? What societal roles do cops fill other than investigating crimes, arresting suspects, and patrolling communities? And what happens when those roles intersect, or even clash, with their law enforcement duties? Over the past few years, these questions have fueled a national debate over American policing. This week, the Supreme Court also came tantalizingly close to wrestling with all of them.

Wednesday’s oral arguments in Caniglia v. Strom revolved around the Fourth Amendment, which generally requires cops to get a warrant before searching someone’s property, and what is known as the community caretaking exception, which allows warrantless searches in certain circumstances. The court will ultimately rule, later this term, on how broad or narrow that exception should be. But along the way, it could shape discussions around whether cops should also serve as social workers and mental heath counselors—and the constitutional risks that arise from that choice.

The case began with an argument in 2015. Edward Caniglia, who was 63 years old at the time, began arguing with his wife over the design of a coffee mug at their home in Cranston, Rhode Island. When the argument got heated, Caniglia went to the basement, retrieved an unloaded handgun, put it on the table, and told her, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?” His wife, upset by his escalation, threatened to call 911, which prompted him to leave the house and go for a drive. After he returned, she decided to spend the night at a nearby motel.

When Caniglia didn’t return her call at first the next day, his wife began to worry that he might have been suicidal. She called the local police department, told them that she was “a little afraid” of her husband, and asked them to perform a wellness check while accompanying her home. Two of the officers who spoke with Caniglia said he was “calm” and “normal” at the time. A sergeant who accompanied them, however, concluded that he was “agitated” and “angry.” They took him to a mental health hospital for further evaluation. The officers also confiscated his guns and refused to return them.

Caniglia then filed a lawsuit against the officers and the city, arguing that they had violated his Second, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court ruled in his favor on a due-process claim for not returning his guns, which prompted the city to give them back. But the court also dismissed the rest of his lawsuit after concluding that the officers’ actions “[weren’t] part of a criminal investigation and had no law enforcement investigatory purpose,” citing the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment.

What is the community caretaking exception? Generally speaking, cops need a warrant to search a person’s property. But the Supreme Court has also recognized multiple exceptions to that rule. The police don’t need a warrant to enter a home if they saw an armed suspect flee inside it during a chase, for instance, or if they see bricks of cocaine in a driver’s backseat during an otherwise routine traffic stop. In the 1973 case Cady v. Dombrowski, the Supreme Court also sided with two cops who searched a person’s trunk while it was being towed after an accident and found incriminating evidence. The justices held that the search was permissible because it was “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Instead, it fell under the general “community caretaking” function that cops generally fulfill as first responders.

In the Cady ruling, the Supreme Court described this exception in the context of automobile searches, where the justices have generally applied lower Fourth Amendment standards for practical reasons. But lower courts have divided on whether it should apply in other contexts as well. Caniglia appealed the case to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel upheld the lower court’s ruling. Along the way, the panel held that the community caretaking exception could also apply to home searches.

“In upholding the defendants’ actions under the community caretaking doctrine, we in no way trivialize the constitutional significance of warrantless entries into a person’s residence, disruption of the right of law-abiding citizens to keep firearms in their homes, or involuntary seizures of handguns,” Judge Bruce Selya wrote for the panel. “By the same token, though, we also remain mindful that police officers have a difficult job—a job that frequently must be carried out amidst the push and pull of competing centrifugal and centripetal forces.”

While the First Circuit tried to limit when the exception could be invoked in home searches, it also adopted a deferential approach to police officers in general. The panel noted that cops “sometimes make on-the-spot judgments in harrowing and difficult circumstances,” and thus deserved “some reasonable leeway” while fulfilling their community caretaker roles. Caniglia then turned to the Supreme Court for relief. “Extending an exception designed for cars (the bottom of the Fourth Amendment totem pole) to homes (the most protected of all private spaces) would eviscerate the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement,” he told the justices in his brief for the court. “And for no good reason: Law enforcement officers and others already have ample other tools for helping people in need.”

The defendants, who include the police officers in question as well as the city government, have a much different view. They told the court that both the Fourth Amendment, as well as Americans themselves, envision a broad role for police officers in everyday life. “Society demands and deserves that first responders, including police, protect and serve their communities,” they wrote in their brief for the court. After listing a range of roles that included “preventing suicide, protecting domestic partners, responding to natural disasters, or helping children and the elderly,” they argued that “such functions can be and have been performed for over two centuries consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

At oral arguments on Wednesday, the justices wrestled with two intertwined issues about extending the community caretaking exception to home searches. Multiple justices raised concerns about using the Fourth Amendment to prevent officers from intervening in cases of life or death. Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Caniglia’s lawyer about whether a police officer could be sued for entering an elderly woman’s home after neighbors said they hadn’t seen her for a few days. Justice Brett Kavanaugh forcefully pressed him about suicides, as well.

“Do you know how many suicides by gunshot there are every day in the United States?” he asked Shay Dvoretzky, Caniglia’s attorney, who said he didn’t know. “Every single day on average, there are 65 suicides by gunshot in the United States on average every day, OK?” Kavanaugh told him. “And police officers are critical when a neighbor, when a family member, as in this instance, can help prevent that.” Dvoretzky noted that Caniglia seemed fine to the officers present in this case. “But police officers in the moment don’t have time to do all this. They’re faced with a spouse, they’re reacting to a situation. And if they say, ‘You know what, that’s not enough,’ and then the person commits suicide, that’s not a good result.”

At the same time, multiple justices also appeared to share the concern articulated by Dvoretzky that expanding the community caretaking exception this much would “swallow all sorts of other Fourth Amendment doctrines because virtually any criminal situation can also be described in health or safety terms.” Some justices also appeared uncomfortable with the prospect of using administrative warrants, which aren’t signed by a judge, to fill in the procedural gaps. Justice Neil Gorsuch appeared to take particular issue with the Justice Department’s friend-of-the-court brief, which suggested that government agents could enter a person’s home without a warrant in “reasonable” cases “to ensure public health and safety.”

“I understand the common law treated the home as an asylum and a castle of defense that was virtually impenetrable, absent some sort of immediate concern about physical injuries, as you describe it in your brief,” Gorusch told Dvoretzky as he queued up a semi-rhetorical question. “But if the government can just get an administrative warrant to come in to test for illness, to check the temperature of the house, whether it’s too hot, too cold, maybe to install some energy-saving devices because that helps health or safety, ... what’s left of the Fourth Amendment?”

None of the justices directly referenced any of the high-profile police killings over the past few years. But the subject appeared to be on their minds. At one point, Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted that some cities no longer send police to respond to certain issues. “Some communities are doing that because sometimes mental health checks don’t go well, and people end up getting hurt, or the police, after someone who’s mentally ill pulled a gun on the police or a knife, things go very poorly and sometimes the person who is the subject of the welfare check will end up being hurt or killed,” she explained. “So some communities are creating a situation where social workers go in. Would that be reasonable?” Dvoretzky eventually replied that he thought such a system could survive a Fourth Amendment challenge.

It’s unclear exactly how the justices will rule on the case. There did not appear to be enough votes to decisively rule in favor of the officers and expand the community caretaking exception to home searches in general, as the First Circuit did. (Either way, the lower courts held that qualified immunity applies.) But many justices also seemed reluctant to bind cops’ hands to intervene in extreme circumstances. Even less clear is whether any of the justices will address the larger and more transfixing question to which Barrett alluded: Why are armed agents of the state carrying so many of these “community caretaking” responsibilities in the first place?