On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will once again turn to the question of privacy of the home, this time examining the role of police in dealing with domestic violence. The hearing will be remote, via telephone. As usual, the audio portion will be broadcast on c-span.org/supreme court
Hearing scheduled for one hour, to start at 10 a.m.:
Caniglia v. Strom
Background: From time to time in history, Americans debate with themselves about the perceived need for “police reform.” Calvin Coolidge, as governor of Massachusetts, rose to national prominence for the way he dealt aggressively with the Boston police strike in 1919. The debate is happening again now, especially in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. One facet of the debate now is the suggestion that society demands too much of its police, requiring them to be social workers – for which they are not well trained – rather than focusing mainly on their jobs as trained crime-solvers.
There is, in fact, a constitutional dimension to the role of police when they intervene in domestic disturbances. That is at the center of the hearing the Supreme Court will hold on Wednesday. It involves, as most questions about the constitutional protection of privacy do, the scope of an exception to the Fourth Amendment limit on “unreasonable searches and seizures” by officers.
As a general rule, the Fourth Amendment requires police to have a search warrant before they may examine private “persons, papers, or effects.” They can only get a warrant from a court or judicial officer, thus assuring that the need for the search is not left solely to the officers’ discretion.
But the Justices spend a great deal of time, every year, spelling out exceptions to that general rule. One of the most gaping of these can be traced to a famous ruling in 1925, in the Prohibition Era case of Carroll v. United States. There, the Court created the so-called “automobile exception.”
Because cars generally can be moved quickly from place to place, the Court reasoned, they can get out of reach of police – and beyond the place where officers could get a search warrant — if the vehicle has been involved in criminal activity. In that case, the car involved was transporting illegal liquor. Police usually do not need a warrant to search an automobile, the Court said; it is enough that they have good reason to believe it was used to help carry out a crime.
That exception, of course, is not limited to cars; it applies as well to trucks, ships and planes. The Court found that it had been true, since the nation’s founding, that fixed structures were to be accorded heightened constitutional privacy from the prying eyes of police and government.
This exception grew even wider in the Court’s 1973 decision in Cady v. Dombroski. In a case involving a police search of the trunk of a car that had been towed in after an accident, the Court said that police do not need a warrant when they examine an auto – not in search of evidence of crime – in performing a “community caretaking function.” That has seemed to mean some kind of public service, not strictly in aid of enforcing criminal laws. The Court did stress in that ruling, however, that it was only dealing with cars, not houses.
Since then, this ill-defined function has been expanded by lower courts, and some now have said that police do not need a warrant when they enter a home to perform that kind of service to the community.
That was precisely the situation that unfolded in the summer of 2016 in Cranston, R.I., after a domestic spat between Edward Caniglia and his wife, Kim. Edward brought out an unloaded gun, and suggested that his wife shoot him “and get me out of my misery.” His wife threatened to call police, so he left the house. He returned later, and the argument continued, leading Mrs. Caniglia to spend the night in a motel.
When she was unable to contact her husband on the next day, she called police, asking them to escort her to their home and to check on the situation. Several police officers arrived, and she told them about the events of the night before. The police took her to the home, and told her to stay in the patrol car while they checked on the husband. After talking with Edward inside the house, the officers decided that he might be a risk to his own safety, so they took him to a hospital to be examined.
In the meantime, the officers went back into the house, and took two handguns. The police refused repeated requests to return the guns. Edward later sued the city and the individual officers, claiming a violation of his rights under the Second Amendment, Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment. In lower courts, the case ultimately focused on his Fourth Amendment claim that the officers had entered the home without a warrant, and did so only under their authority to act as “community caretakers.”
A federal appeals court ruled that this exception applies when police enter a private home. Police, it said, provide an “infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.” Allowing them to go into a home to investigate a disturbance, even though they do not have a warrant, that court said, gives police “elbow room to take appropriate action.”
The federal appeals courts are split on that issue, with some concluding that “community caretaking” must be confined to searches without a warrant of a car or other vehicle. The husband in the case, Edward Caniglia, took the issue to the Supreme Court, arguing that the expansion of the exception allows police to disregard the Fourth Amendment any time an officer believes the entry is done to take care of the community.
The question before the Court: Does the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment allow police to enter a home without a warrant, or is that confined to examination of cars or other vehicles?
Significance: Throughout the history of the Constitution, the courts have always placed the private home in a special protected place under the Fourth Amendment. Not only is the dwelling itself protected, but so is its exterior, any garage or other buildings, and even the yard – out to the edge of a public street. The Court has gone so far that, for example, it has forbidden police to aim a heat-seeking device at the outside wall of a home, to help them detect what is going on inside the walls.
The result has been that, even though the word “unreasonable” in the Fourth Amendment can have many meanings, the Court has started with the premise that a warrantless entry or penetration of a home fits within that word unless a specific justification exists, such as a clearly demonstrated emergency that does not allow time to seek a warrant. Police thus have long been on notice that the smart thing to do is to get a warrant to remove any doubt before going into a home.
There is no suggestion, in this case from Rhode Island, that the police did not have time to go for a warrant in the time between the call from the wife and the entry into the Caniglias’ home. But, with the benefit of the “community caretaker” exception, they did not need to bother.
If the Court is inclined to allow that exception to apply at all in the private home context, it very likely will insist that the definition of the exception be stated far more clearly than it was in the lower courts in this case. Is it enough that the officers were worried about the fate of an angry husband? Were the expressed worries of the spouse sufficient? How available were search warrants in that community?