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.

Unanimous Jury Verdict is Required in Serious Crimes

Today, in the case of RAMOS vs LOUISIANA, April 20, 2020 (No. 18-5924), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a unanimous jury verdict  is required in cases involving serious crimes. It held the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to a jury trial, also requires the verdict in serious crimes to be unanimous. Since 1968, the 6th Amendment has been applied against states under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968).

Up to this point, a single juror’s vote to acquit a defendant was enough to prevent a conviction in 48 States and the federal courts. The state of Oregon now remains the only state that permits a non unanimous verdict in the case of a serious offense; this distinction exists because the right to a jury trial is inapplicable to “petty offenses.

The Court addressed the historical significance by declaring: “The requirement of juror unanimity emerged in 14th-century England and was soon accepted as a vital right  protected by the common law.” It further reasoned: ” So if the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict to support a conviction in federal court, it requires no less in state court.”

The result of the Court’s decision is that defendants and prisoners in Louisiana and Oregon, the only two states in recent years that have allowed such verdicts, will have their cases overturned claiming their verdicts are now void.

Voidable Employer Agreements

A “voidable” agreement is one that may appear at the outset to be capable of being enforced, however, it can thereafter be attacked, invalidated, nullified, deemed not binding, void and unenforceable. In contrast, a “void” agreement from the beginning cannot be legally enforced.

On October 13, 2019, the governor signed Assembly Bill 51, to be effective January 1, 2020. Pursuant to this new legislation and thereafter, a California employer may NOT condition pre-employment, a promise of continued employment, &/or the receipt of any employment related benefit or additional compensation, on an employee giving up her/his right to pursue a legally enforceable claim, such as that which can be brought under the California employment discrimination law, and certain other employment laws in full or part, in any administrative or court proceeding. The new law says that any agreement that conditions employment on agreeing to arbitrate employment related disputes is unenforceable.

Hence, any existing contract or agreement that is modified or extended, on and after January 1, 2020, in which an employer requires an employee to waive the right to bring a claim in the court system, and not exclusively by arbitration, must be a matter of actual voluntary consent, and not by signing an agreement that is tantamount to coercion. It is likely that when an employee has a genuine choice, (s)he will not agree to bind themselves to arbitration in advance.

Those in support of past mandatory arbitration clauses in agreements claimed it saved the parties time and money and, therefore, was less expensive, more efficient, and necessary for employers to resolve disputes through arbitration and not in the (overburdened) court system.

On and after 1/1/20, a major issue that arises in the enforcement of an arbitration provision of a contract or agreement is whether both sides in a dispute agree to this method of resolving a dispute after the dispute arises, and the parties then have an opportunity to evaluate their individual rights and own best interests for resolving a claim or dispute. This is another way of requiring an arbitration agreement to be entered into knowingly and voluntarily, and not as a condition of employment. 

Notwithstanding the above, Assembly Bill 51 raises an issue whether its applicability is invalidated, &/or is otherwise unenforceable because it is in conflict with the Federal Arbitration Act [FAA]. In this regard, the U.S. Supreme Court has held the FAA bars a state from passing a law that rejects, limits or marginalizes arbitration agreements. Because a state law cannot conflict with federal law, therefore,  the applicability of California AB 51 will be subject to legislative amendment, and/or potential court action by one or more employee unions, a class action lawsuit, etc.

In summary, the conclusion one can reach from AB 51 is that arbitration agreements are “voidable,” but not necessarily or automatically void.



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