Constitutionality of Home Search in Question

On November 20, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of CANIGLIA, EDWARD A. vs. STROM, ROBERT F., ET AL. (Case Number 20 -157), granted the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, which is the procedure in which the Supreme Court is asked by a litigant who is challenging a case (akin to an “appeal”) to review the merits of a lower Court’s Decision.

The underlying case is worthy of note in that the litigant, who is entitled Petitioner, Edward Caniglia, sought to set aside the Decision of the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Caniglia v. Strom, 953 F.3d 112 (1st Cir. 2020), which Court held against him and in favor of law enforcement. The facts of the 2015 case dealt with Caniglia, who was 68 years old with no criminal history and no record of domestic violence; however, he got into an argument with his wife with whom he was married for 22 years and, when the argument escalated, he retrieved an unloaded gun from their residence, and said, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.” However, the unloaded gun was laid on the table. As might be expected, his wife left their home [and went to a nearby motel]; the next day, she contacted the local police because she told them she was unable to reach her husband when she called.

When the police arrived to perform their “wellness check,” Caniglia told them he “couldn’t take it anymore,” but said “he would never commit suicide.” Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Caniglia entered the home. The officers claimed they had a concern and, therefore, a risk Caniglia would harm himself. After a discussion with he and his wife, Caniglia agreed to be evaluated; then, he was taken by the police to the hospital, where he was seen by a nurse and a social worker. However, Caniglia was discharged the same day, being billed about $1000 for the temporary health services. As part of the police contact, and allegedly having falsely representing to the police her husband had consented, Caniglia’s wife led them to the part of their home where they took possession of his other weapon and the particular gun Caniglia had previously laid on the table.

Thereafter, Caniglia filed a lawsuit in in the U.S. District Court, Caniglia v. Strom,  396 F. Supp. 3d 227 (D.R.I. 2019), in which he alleged the law enforcement officers violated his Constitutional guarantees under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. Essentially, he claimed the police violated the Second and Fourth Amendment, along with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In a truly mixed and complex Decision, Caniglia lost on procedural grounds and without a trial on the merits; that Decision was appealed to the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which on March 13, 2020, affirmed the  U.S. District Court’s Decision. It is the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals that was then appealed by Caniglia’s attorneys who thereafter filed a Writ to the U.S. Supreme Court, as stated at the outset of this Blog.

Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, we are guaranteed “to be secure ….. against unreasonable searches and seizures,” unless there is a valid Search Warrant or probable cause.  The concept of probable cause has a long history and is one heavily litigated by criminal defense lawyers who uniformly claim it requires sufficient proof of a reasonable basis to believe a crime may have been committed or there is evidence of a crime present in the place to be searched. The police had asserted their entry and seizure of the two weapons was justified under their “community caretaking” functions.

Most importantly, the Courts have been deeply divided on the definition and what constitutes  the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement to preserve and protect community safety. The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari because the “community caretaking” exception should be deemed an anomaly to, and a very narrow deviation from, the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, this concept needed to be clarified if law enforcement were to use it, without a warrant, to justify searches that otherwise might violate the sanctity of our homes and undermine the dignity and respect of human life. In granting the Petition, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “it is the role of the courts—not the police—to decide whether and when an intrusion into the home is justified. ” The Court further elaborated by stating:

The expansion of an amorphous exception—which, according to the First Circuit, can cover teenage parties, wellness checks, and anything else an officer deems “reasonable” in the name of community care—into that most private of spaces authorizes exactly those intrusions the Founders   most feared. And the entrenched split of authority leaves officers without much-needed guidance about the scope of their authority—and citizens without much-needed confidence in the supposed sanctity of their homes” (emphasis added).

The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted this significant criminal case. The Court will eventually put the matter on their calendar to hear arguments and later issue a Decision.