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A case recently argued before the Supreme Court asked whether the “community caretaker exception” allows police officers to enter a home without a warrant to seize property. Let’s examine how constitutional law, which is nothing more than the opinion of judges, is being used to circumvent the Constitution of the United States.
Oral arguments were given before the Supreme Court in the case Caniglia v. Strom. The petitioner, Edward A. Caniglia, has sued Robert F. Strom and several other officials of the city of Cranston, RI, after police officers entered his home without a warrant and confiscated Mr. Strom’s property, specifically two handguns, then refused to return them. Specifically, Mr. Strom claimed that the city of Cranston had violated his rights protected by the Second and Fourth Amendments and that the city violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. From the complaint:
At issue here is Petitioner’s claim that the entry into his home and resulting seizures—effected without a warrant or civil order—violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The officers’ only justification for the entry and seizures was the “community caretaking” exception.
The argument made by Mr. Strom’s attorney was quite simple:
The Fourth Amendment recognizes the sanctity of the home by drawing a firm line at the door. The government cannot cross that line without a warrant unless there is consent or exigent circumstances. Here, there was neither. Respondents’ warrantless seizure of Petitioner from his home and their subsequent seizures of his lawfully possessed guns from his bedroom and garage violated the Fourth Amendment.
As one would expect, the attorney for the city of Cranston argued differently:
The question presented is whether caretaking by police officers and first responders may, under certain circumstances, take place in the home without a warrant. It should. The Petitioner has an absolute position: Under no circumstances should a warrantless caretaking occur inside a home, except upon consent or exigent circumstances. This absolute all-or-nothing approach is contrary to the reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment, the very touchstone of the Fourth Amendment. There may be circumstances that allow for caretaking in the home absent a warrant when the advent of the potential harm is not so clear, but the need to respond could be immediate. Time could be of the essence.
So which argument is correct?
If I understand the arguments made correctly, the “community caretaking exception” was something the courts came up with based on hypothetical arguments made in cases like Cady v Dombrowski, which involved a search of a vehicle in police custody. There is just one problem. There is no exception to the Constitution, period. In order for a search to be legal, it must be reasonable. While the definition of reasonable is not as specific as we would like, that is the standard.
Having the faculty of reason, endued with reason, as a reasonable being.
A faculty of the mind by which it distinguishes truth from falsehood, and good from evil, and which enables the possessor to deduce inferences from facts or from propositions.
When the term “reasonable” is used in the Constitution, it is most often referred to as what a reasonable person would find reasonable. I know, circular logic, but that tends to be the standard most often used. The idea of the “community caretaker exception” seems to be distinguishing between the investigative functions of law enforcement and its merely caretaker functions. However, this brings to light another fallacy about the Constitution.
The limitations the Constitution places are upon government, not simply law enforcement. It is just as illegal for a public school official, a census taker, or a city dog catcher to search or seize you or your property as it is for law enforcement to do so. For any government official to search you or your property, it must be reasonable. That generally means that either there must be an imminent threat to someone or that the official has gone to court to get a legitimate warrant. Should a government official with legitimate concern for the welfare of someone enter a home, they should not be allowed to search t; that would be unreasonable. We’ve all seen the crime drama where the law enforcement officer, “knowing” that there is evidence in someone’s home, pretends to hear a call for help, then uses that as justification for entering and searching. I know of no reasonable person that would consider that a reasonable search. In the same vein, should law enforcement be dispatched to someone’s home for a “wellness check,” they are there to check on a person’s health and should not be allowed to use that as an excuse to search or seize items, even if they are in plain view.
Was the Seizure Reasonable?
Before we go on, let us look at the question of reasonableness in this case. After a heated argument between Mr. Caniglia and his wife, Mrs. Caniglia spent the night at a motel. The next day, concerned about her husband, Mrs. Caniglia contacted Cranston police and asked them to escort her home and do a wellness check on her husband.
When multiple officers arrived to meet her, Mrs. Caniglia told them what had happened and that she was concerned about her husband’s safety—including the possibility that he could be suicidal.
After calling Petitioner, who “sounded fine,” the officers escorted Mrs. Caniglia back to the home, where they instructed her to stay in the car while they spoke with Petitioner on the back deck. Petitioner told the officers about what had happened and that he had said “just shoot me” because he “couldn’t take it anymore.” “He was calm for the most part,” “seemed normal,” and said, “that he would never commit suicide.” Mrs. Caniglia then entered the home.
Say what you will about the wisdom of Mr. Caniglia’s words, uttered in the heat of the moment when interviewed outside his home; the officers found him calm and normal but were not convinced.
Based on their conversations with Petitioner and Mrs. Caniglia, the officers believed there was a risk that Petitioner would harm himself. As a result, they summoned a rescue lieutenant from the Cranston Fire Department to the Caniglias’ home. That officer told Petitioner that he was taking him to a local hospital. Petitioner went along after the police told him they would not take his two handguns if he did so. At the hospital, a nurse and a social worker examined Petitioner. He was discharged the very same day but had to pay about $1000 for the visit.
The police officers convinced Mr. Strom to go to the hospital for an examination, a trip which cost him $1,000. Mr. Strom would only go after the police told him they would not take his firearms, but that was not the case:
Meanwhile, the officers entered the Caniglias’ home to seize Petitioner’s guns. The officers believed “it was reasonable to do so based on [Petitioner’s] state of mind” and feared that “[Petitioner] and others could be in danger” if guns remained in the home. After the officers falsely represented to Mrs. Caniglia that Petitioner had consented, she led the officers to the guns. The officers then seized them.
And law enforcement wonders why people don’t trust them? First, they lied to Mr. Caniglia about them confiscating his property. Then they lied to his wife about Mr. Caniglia’s consent. If the officers thought they had probable cause to seize the weapons, why did they not get a warrant? Police noted that Mr. Caniglia seemed normal and, for the most part, calm. Yet they thought it reasonable to not only confiscate this man’s property without any probable cause? If the police officers thought it was reasonable, why did they wait until after Mr. Caniglia had left the premises? And why did they lie to him about their intentions? Yes, the wife stated that she was concerned, but if she thought it was reasonable for the officers to confiscate her husband’s firearms, why did they have to lie to her about his consent? To add insult to injury, this saga was not finished.
A few days later, Mrs. Caniglia went to the police station to retrieve the guns. Officers refused her request. A month later, Petitioner went to the police station with the same request. Again, the officers refused. When Petitioner’s attorney made the same request, he fared no better.
So we have an illegal seizure of private property, deprivation of rights under color of law, and law enforcement was allowed to lie during the commission of a crime while acting under their oath of office. Yet, it does not seem they have been charged. Instead, we have innocent citizens having to fight for the return of their illegally seized property, property that was not returned until after Mr. Caniglia sued the city.
We should not be surprised when those in government attempt to find exceptions to the Constitution, especially when it restricts their actions. And I’m not surprised when government actors, in the form of judges, either invent these exceptions or use those created by their predecessors.
There is no exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protections, or for that matter, any other constitutional rules. A search or seizure is either reasonable or not. If government actors could not, or do not, get a warrant, they need a really good reason to search and seize. It is not reasonable to use the excuse of checking on someone’s well-being to circumvent the supreme law of the land. It is also unreasonable and should be illegal for government actors to lie to those they are supposed to serve. If we allow members of courts to continue to violate their oaths to support the Constitution, then we are just as much to blame as they are. I do know that those in the district court who found it reasonable for law enforcement to seize property without probable cause and lied to make that happen should be investigated for judicial misconduct.
If the people of this country cannot trust their courts to abide by the law they swore or affirmed to uphold, then we must demand our representatives in the House do their job and oversee the courts.
If we cannot trust those we hire to represent us to do their jobs, then it’s about time we found better people to represent us.
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