In a case that exemplifies the overreaching and unrestrained intrusion by law enforcement into the lives of American citizens, the United States Supreme Court recently held, in a unanimous decision, that the Police Department for the City of Cranston, Rhode Island, could not justify a warrantless search and seizure of a home based on the “community caretaking functions” of police officers. Caniglia v. Strom, No. 20-157.
The case arose one day in 2015 in Cranston, Rhode Island, when a woman called the Cranston police to request a welfare check on her husband because the previous night, during a dispute, he placed one of his handguns on the dining room table and said, “shoot me now and get it over with.” Police officers visited the husband, Mr. Caniglia, at his home, and—after finding him on the porch and exhibiting no specifically concerning behavior—required him to go to a hospital for a psychological evaluation and then confiscated his two firearms. When Mr. Caniglia sued for violations of his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the Cranston police could not identify any justification for the warrantless search and seizure other than by reference to “community caretaking functions” passively mentioned in a decades old Supreme Court decision.
Remarkably, law enforcement across the country have apparently been using this fictitious “community caretaking” exemption as justification to violate the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens by misapplying a Supreme Court decision from 1973, Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, which related only to a warrantless search of an impounded vehicle. In Cady, the Supreme Court reasoned that the vehicle at issue had been abandoned, represented a public nuisance, and therefore it was reasonable for the police to have it towed to a garage and searched to safeguard a weapon suspected to be in the car. The Court expressly recognized the distinction between motor vehicles and homes in concluding that the warrantless, so-called “caretaking” search was not unreasonable. From that extraordinarily brief use of the word “caretaking,” law enforcement developed an entirely new and absurd exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. What’s more, courts across the country, including the First Circuit Court of Appeals, have upheld this justification as valid through decades of reliance on the unreasonable application of this so-called exemption by other courts to homes and persons, slowly stripping away more of the basic Forth Amendment rights created to protect the public from this very intrusion.
In extending this obscure finding that a search of an impounded car was reasonable into a full-blown exception to the warrant requirement, the First Circuit wrote, “After all, a police officer — over and above his weighty responsibilities for enforcing the criminal law — must act as a master of all emergencies, who is ‘expected to aid those in distress, combat actual hazards, prevent potential hazards from materializing, and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’” Caniglia v. Strom, 953 F.3d 112, 124 (1st Cir. 2020). But while this description of modern day policing is unfortunately accurate, it cannot and should not be used as an excuse to permit law enforcement to invade all aspects of public and private life. Indeed, this is precisely what a substantial segment of society has been complaining of as unreasonable, inappropriate, dangerous, and desperately in need of constraint, both in terms of the unreasonably excessive demands on law enforcement beyond enforcing criminal law and the resulting detrimental impact to the general public, including the most vulnerable in our society. The end result is mistrust between protectors and the protected. Sadly, this often results in those most in need declining to seek help, avoidable deaths, and other tragic ends.
When both a large portion of society, including those in law enforcement, and a unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court are telling us that law enforcement is increasingly overstepping its traditional and legal boundaries, shouldn’t that be enough to reconceive the demands thrust upon police officers and what we expect of them in our society? For example, wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the public, and put less pressure on the police, to send public employees with medical or mental health expertise to respond to welfare checks, if the basis of the check is purely medical or mental-health related? It’s time for lawmakers throughout Rhode Island to seriously address these issues to help all Rhode Islanders – police and public alike.
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