Washington D.C. — While states and local agencies are trying to limit police powers, it appears the the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the long-standing rules about law enforcement being able to enter a home without a warrant for reasons of health or public safety. And a recent Supreme Court case has proven to be even more pivotal.
This particular case was initially heard by the court in Rhode Island where a man, Edward Caniglia, appealed a lower court ruling throwing out his lawsuit that accused police of violating his constitutional rights. In 2015, police officers brought Caniglia to a hospital for a mental health evaluation and took away his guns without a warrant after an argument with his wife.
Lower courts ruled that police in Cranston (RI) did not violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. That’s like because law enforcement officers respond to thousands of “check the well being” calls each week across the country. And if there is a reason to believe someone inside is in need of critical medical care, they can enter the residence.
During arguments, several justices seemed wary of impeding officers from quickly responding to grave situations in which a person might be injured or die. They also cited examples of people who were suicidal, and elderly people in need of help.
Some justices, however, questioned how they could ensure that police would not abuse expanded powers to act without a warrant.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the case highlights two common situations – older people falling and suicides – in which imposing heightened requirements on police would cause them to back away instead of acting quickly.
“The longer you’re in the house and no one comes to get you, you’re more likely to die from the fall. The statistics are huge on older people dying from falls,” Kavanaugh told Caniglia’s attorney, Shay Dvoretzky.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised doubts about giving police the authority to judge the severity of any situation on their own without, for instance, the advice of mental health experts.
President Joe Biden’s administration backed the police in the case. And a Justice Department lawyer told the justices that officers should not be required to obtain warrants in situations in which people could be seriously harmed.
However, this case also highlights how such powers could have unintended consequences.
In this case, a domestic argument between Caniglia and his wife Kim began over a Walt Disney World coffee mug. Perhaps trivial, the argument soon swirled into a disagreement about her extended family. And at one point, Caniglia retrieved a gun and asked his wife to shoot him to “get me out of my misery,” according to court papers.
Kim decided to spend the night at a hotel, and called police because she feared her husband could be suicidal. After the police were involved, Caniglia’s guns were confiscated.
Ultimately, Caniglia sued the city and the police. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the case according to Yahoo News.
And the most pivotal aspect of this case, it that the 1st Circuit concluded that even if the dispute did not constitute an emergency, police were justified under the legal doctrine that gives officers leeway to engage in “community caretaking” to ensure public safety.
Worth noting, however, is that Caniglia, 70, had no criminal history and no record of violence or misuse of guns. And police returned his guns only after he sued.