The Fourth Amendment got a welcome shot in the arm this week in the form of a unanimous verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion in Caniglia v. Strom, declining to carve out another exception to the amendment’s warrant requirement. The Court rejected completely the notion that police may enter anyone’s home without a warrant, except in currently recognized and narrowly drawn situations.
Edward Caniglia had led his wife to believe he might be suicidal. She called the police, who found him on the porch of their home. Caniglia denied being suicidal but agreed to go voluntarily to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. He made his compliance conditional on the promise that police would not seize any of his firearms. The police agreed, but they reneged on the deal, and they lied to his wife about his wishes. Caniglia sued to recover the firearms officers removed or stole, depending on whether they had a lawful right to take them.
The lower courts decided that police were legally allowed to take the guns because they were not engaging in law enforcement but a “community caretaking” function. That term was used in a Supreme Court case called Cady v. Dombrowski, in which the Court upheld the warrantless search for a firearm in a car that police had impounded. As Justice Thomas wrote:
“The question today is whether Cady’s acknowledgment of these ‘caretaking’ duties creates a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home. It does not.”
There are exceptions to the warrant requirement. If police are in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felon, for instance, they need not wait for a warrant to enter a home to nab the perp. Another exception is for “exigent circumstances,” created to address those situations in which any delay by law enforcement officers would pose a risk of physical harm or imminent destruction of evidence in a serious crime. If a cop has good reason to think a person is being assaulted inside a residence, for example, she need not wait for a warrant if her belief is reasonable.
None of this was present in Caniglia’s case, however. The principal reason for allowing exceptions to the warrant requirement was absent here – there was no urgent rush. Caniglia was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Police had all the time they needed to seek a warrant for the guns. Justice Thomas wrote, “What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.” He let the lower courts know that the Supreme Court “has repeatedly ‘declined to expand the scope of … exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.’”
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.
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