In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court in Caniglia v. Strom rejected a lower court’s broad interpretation of the “community caretaking exception,” which erroneously extrapolated a previous Supreme Court case’s statement regarding the exception to warrantless search and seizure in a home context under the specific facts of this case.

Background

During an argument at home with his wife, Edward Caniglia put a handgun on the dining room table, and asked his wife to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.”  His wife instead left and stayed at a hotel that night.  When Caniglia’s wife was unable to reach him by telephone the next morning, she called the police to request a welfare check.

The responding officers accompanied Caniglia’s wife to the home, where they encountered Caniglia on the porch.  Caniglia confirmed his wife’s account of the argument to the officers but denied that he was suicidal.  The officers, however, thought that Caniglia posed a risk to himself or others, and called an ambulance.  Caniglia agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation—but only after the officers allegedly promised not to confiscate his firearms.  Once the ambulance had taken Caniglia away, however, officers went into his home and seized weapons.  Guided by Caniglia’s wife—whom they allegedly misinformed about her husband’s wishes—the officers entered the home and took two handguns.

Caniglia sued, claiming that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant.  The District Court granted summary judgment to the officers. 

The First Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed solely on the ground that the decision to remove Caniglia and his firearms from the premises fell within a “community caretaking exception” to the warrant requirement.  Citing the United States Supreme Court’s statement in Cady v. Dombrowski that police officers often have noncriminal reasons to interact with motorists on “public highways,” 413 U. S. 433, 441 (1973), the First Circuit extrapolated a freestanding community-caretaking exception that applies to both cars and homes.  Accordingly, the First Circuit saw no need to consider whether anyone had consented to respondents’ actions; whether these actions were justified by “exigent circumstances”; or whether any state law permitted this kind of mental-health intervention.  All that mattered to the Circuit Court was that the officers’ efforts to protect Caniglia and those around him were “distinct from ‘the normal work of criminal investigation,’” fell “within the realm of reason,” and generally tracked what the court viewed to be “sound police procedure.”  The Supreme Court granted certiorari. 

Discussion

The Supreme Court began by noting that the Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the primacy of the home setting with regard to Fourth Amendment safeguards.  The Court stated that the “‘very core’” of this guarantee under the Fourth Amendment is “‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’”  Florida v. Jardines, 569 U. S. 1, 6 (2013).

The Court further stated that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all unwelcome intrusions on private property, only unreasonable ones.  The Court has recognized a few permissible invasions of the home and its curtilage, for example, for searches and seizures pursuant to a valid warrant.  See Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663, 1676 (2018).  The Supreme Court has also held that law enforcement officers may enter private property without a warrant when certain exigent circumstances exist, including the need to “‘render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.’”  Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S. 452, 460, 470 (2011); see also Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398, 403-404 (2006) (listing other examples of exigent circumstances).  The Supreme Court noted that officers may generally take actions that “‘any private citizen might do’” without fear of liability.  E.g., Jardines, 569 U. S., at 8 (approaching a home and knocking on the front door).

However, the Supreme Court explained that the First Circuit’s “community caretaking” rule went beyond any that the Court previously had established.  The Supreme Court noted that the First Circuit’s decision had assumed that the officers lacked a warrant or consent, and it had expressly disclaimed the possibility that they were reacting to a crime.  The lower court had also declined to consider whether any recognized exigent circumstances were present because the officers had failed to argue the point.  Nor did the Circuit Court find that the officers’ actions were similar to what a private citizen might have had authority to do if Caniglia’s wife had approached a neighbor for assistance instead of the police.

The Court explained that neither the holding nor logic of Cady justified the First Circuit’s broad approach.  While Cady also involved a warrantless search for a firearm, the location of that search was an impounded vehicle—not a home—”‘a constitutional difference’” that the opinion repeatedly stressed.  Underscoring the point, Cady expressly contrasted its treatment of a vehicle already under police control with a search of a car “parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.” 

The Court further explained that Cady’s clear differentiation between vehicles and homes also provided illuminating context for its reference to “community caretaking.”  The portion of the Cady opinion mentioning this phrase explained that the “frequency with which . . . vehicle[s] can become disabled or involved in . . . accident[s] on public highways” often requires police to perform noncriminal “community caretaking functions,” such as providing aid to motorists.  413 U. S., at 441.  The Supreme Court stated that Cady’s recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was only that—a mere recognition that these tasks exist, not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.

Declaring “[w]hat is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes,” the Court noted that it had repeatedly “declined to expand the scope of . . . exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.”  The Court accordingly vacated the Circuit Court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Breyer, concurred, seeing no conflict from the Court’s opinion with the declaration expressed in Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398 (2006) that a warrant to enter a home is not required when there is a “need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.” Id. at p. 403.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito touched on several questions concerning the community-caretaking function, such as conducting a search or seizure for the purpose of preventing a person from committing suicide, the seizure of guns within this context, and warrantless searches and seizures in the context of elderly persons living alone.  While finding these actions permissible by peace officers, Justice Alito, however, agreed with the Court’s rejection of a broad “community caretaking” theory espoused by the First Circuit, and concurred on this basis.

Justice Kavanaugh also concurred, emphasizing that the Court’s decision here did not prevent police officers from taking reasonable steps to assist those who are inside a home and in need of aid, even lacking a warrant.  Justice Kavanaugh discussed the exigent circumstances doctrine as applied to emergency-aid situations.  He stated that police officers may enter a home without a warrant in circumstances where they are reasonably trying to prevent a potential suicide or to help an elderly person who has been out of contact and may have fallen and suffered a serious injury.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

In this decision, the Supreme Court highlighted the constitutional distinction between the home setting and the vehicle setting as relevant to the “community caretaking” exception, noting the Fourth Amendment protections are strongest in the home setting.  The Court rejected a broad application of the “community caretaking” exception set forth by the First Circuit.  However, the Court noted that, in general, the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement still permits the exigent entry into a home without a warrant in multiple contexts other than the facts posed by Caniglia, as demonstrated by the multiple concurring opinions highlighting this issue.

Pertinent to the specific issue presented by the case with respect to seizure of weapons inside the home on welfare check calls, California law provides, in Penal Code section 1524, that a warrant may be obtained, “When the property or things to be seized include a firearm or other deadly weapon that is owned by, or in the possession of, or in the custody or control of, a person described in subdivision (a) of Section 8102 of the Welfare and Institutions Code.”  Section 1524 was amended in 2009 by AB 532 to permit a warrant to be issued to close a gap in the law regarding warrants that was noted in the case entitled People v. Sweig, 167 Cal. App. 4th 1145 (2008).  Accordingly, in California, under the facts of the Caniglia case, California law enforcement would either obtain consent to seize the firearms present in the home, or a warrant pursuant to Section 1524(10), when taking a person into temporary custody under Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150.

While the limited intrusion and violation into the Fourth Amendment in this case was somewhat minimal, attorney’s fees associated with a technical violation of the Fourth Amendment can be substantial.  Accordingly, agencies would be well advised to ensure that their officers are current on Fourth Amendment search and seizure law, such as that set forth in Caniglia.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400, or via email, at jrt@jones-mayer.com

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