Court Battles

Supreme Court wary of curbing police efforts to prevent suicide

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared to seek a middle ground in a case involving a warrantless police search of a Rhode Island man’s home and seizure of his guns based on the officers’ belief he was at serious risk of self-harm. 

Several of the justices seemed wary of strictly enforcing the Constitution’s general warrant requirement when doing so might hamper officers’ efforts to prevent suicides or aid other vulnerable people in high-risk situations. 

“Every single day on average there are 65 suicides by gunshot in the United States,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said during oral arguments.

“Police officers in the moment don’t have time to do all this,” he said, referring to the process of obtaining a warrant. “They’re reacting to a situation and if they say, ‘That’s not enough (justification to intervene),’ and then the person commits suicide, that’s not a good result.” 

For nearly five decades the courts have allowed police, when acting as community caretakers, to dispense with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement while carrying out reasonable searches or seizures related to motor vehicles. 

Wednesday’s case placed the issue in a novel context, asking the justices whether to extend the so-called community caretaking exception to the home, which has long enjoyed special protections under the law.

The case raised similar questions about what kinds of situations would permit the police, without a warrant, to force someone to undergo a psychological evaluation or relinquish their guns to authorities.

The case stems from a heated marital dispute in 2015 between Edward and Kim Caniglia, during which Edward Caniglia presented a pistol to his wife and said, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”

Kim Caniglia, upset by the exchange, hid the gun’s magazine and spent the night at a hotel. The next day she called home and grew concerned when her husband did not answer. Worried that he might have harmed or even killed himself, Kim Caniglia then called the Cranston police and asked them to conduct a wellness check of her husband and escort her home.

According to Edward Caniglia’s version of events, the police showed up at his home and forced him to undergo a psychological evaluation. While he was at the hospital, the police then entered the Caniglias’ home without a warrant. The officers, citing concerns about Edward Caniglia’s state of mind and fears that he and others “could be in danger,” seized his guns.

The case arrived at the Supreme Court after Caniglia lost a district court ruling that was affirmed by the Boston-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. In a panel decision last March, the First Circuit joined several other court circuits in ruling that the community caretaking principle could encompass warrantless searches of the home.

Given “the practical realities of policing,” the court ruled, “we think it plain that the community caretaking doctrine may, under the right circumstances, have purchase outside the motor vehicle context.”

Critics of that decision say it gives police far too much discretion to bypass constitutional restraints on home intrusions and the seizure of firearms. 

During Wednesday’s arguments, the justices presented both sides with a number of hypotheticals to test how far the exception should extend, including questions about incommunicado elderly neighbors who may be injured and even cats stuck in trees.

But they continued to return to the issue of suicide. Along with self-harm, the word suicide and similar phrasings were mentioned more than three dozen times during arguments, with a majority of justices asking about the interplay between attempts by officers to prevent suicide and the Constitution’s bar on unreasonable search and seizure.

Justice Samuel Alito, one of the court’s more conservative members, asked an attorney for Caniglia what level of suspicion is needed to justify police intervention.

“Putting aside the warrant requirement, probable cause the person will commit suicide,” Alito asked, wondering if that were a valid “reason to enter” a home.

“That — that may be a reason to enter,” Shay Dvoretzky, Caniglia’s attorney, replied.

Despite apparent widespread agreement among the justices that suicide prevention was an important consideration in the case, there was seemingly little consensus about where an expanded exception might fit into the current legal landscape.

Attorneys for both the Cranston police and the Department of Justice expressed no qualms with the justices finding the case falling under a preexisting exemption to the Fourth Amendment, rather than expand the community caretaker exception.

“The Fourth Amendment has only one test,” said Marc Desisto, who argued on behalf of the city of Cranston, “and that is that searches and seizures shall not be unreasonable.” 

A decision in the case, Caniglia v. Strom (No. 20-157), is expected by late June.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Police searches Rhode Island Samuel Alito Supreme Court

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