On March 24, 2021, the United States Supreme Court heard an oral argument in a case that could have significant ramifications for St. Louis-area citizens facing criminal charges, and for anyone else who cares about the right to privacy in their homes.
What’s at stake
In Caniglia v. Strom, the Court will decide whether police can enter a home without a warrant to protect health and safety (which courts call a “community caretaking” purpose) in the absence of a threat of imminent harm to someone inside or to the public at-large.
Normally, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires police to get a warrant before entering a home for any reason. However, a few narrow exceptions to that requirement do exist, mostly to address pressing circumstances in which police don’t have time to get a warrant.
Police don’t need a warrant to enter a home, for example, when confronted with “exigent circumstances” related to a crime they’re investigating, like the probability that a suspect inside is about to destroy evidence. They also do not need a warrant when “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felony suspect leads them into a home. (Another case currently before the Supreme Court asks whether that exception also applies for hot pursuit of someone merely suspected of committing a misdemeanor.) Finally, police usually don’t need a warrant if they have a reasonable basis to believe that someone inside a home is in dire need of emergency medical attention or is threatened with immediate, serious physical harm.
Is a time crunch always necessary?
Sometimes, however, police confront potential threats to health and safety in a home that aren’t necessarily imminent. What then? If the police lack a reasonable basis to believe that harm is just minutes or seconds from happening, does the Fourth Amendment nevertheless permit them to enter a home and seize property for health and safety reasons without a warrant?
Caniglia involves that kind of situation. During a heated nighttime argument, Mr. Caniglia brandished an unloaded firearm at his wife and alluded to self-harm. Mrs. Caniglia left and stayed overnight at a motel. The next morning, she asked local police to accompany her home to check on her husband’s wellbeing. By most accounts, Mr. Caniglia seemed fine. Nevertheless, the police convinced him to get a psychiatric evaluation at a local hospital immediately. After he departed, the police lied to Mrs. Caniglia, telling her that Mr. Caniglia had given them permission to enter the home and seize his firearms, which they then did.
In defending against a lawsuit the Caniglias subsequently filed alleging a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, the officers argued that their role as “community caretakers” justified their actions. They claimed that even though no immediate danger could have existed once Mr. Caniglia left for the hospital, their reasonable concern that Mr. Caniglia might later return and harm himself or others excused them from getting a warrant before going into his house and seizing his guns.
Did it? That’s what the Supreme Court will soon decide. During oral argument, the Court’s nine justices seemed torn between protecting the privacy and security of the home on one hand, while on the other giving police flexibility to address situations where they have legitimate reasons to worry about the physical safety of someone inside – an elderly person who has not picked up the phone for days, for example, or a teen who has written about suicide on social media – even if they don’t know how imminent that danger is.
Implications for criminal defendants
The Supreme Court’s decision in Caniglia v. Strom could affect important rights of criminal defendants.
Criminal defense lawyers routinely rely on strong protections for the home under the Fourth Amendment to prevent prosecutors from using evidence gathered by law enforcement during illegal, warrantless searches. However, if police enter a home under a valid exception to the warrant requirement, then even if their purpose for going in has nothing to do with investigating a crime, the government can potentially use evidence they obtain once inside to convict the home’s occupant of a crime.
Any potential expansion of law enforcement’s right to enter a home without a warrant, in other words, invites close monitoring by criminal defense lawyers and their clients.