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High court mulls police power to enter homes without warrant

March 24, 2021 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday weighed when police can enter homes without a warrant, with the justices making up scenarios involving elderly neighbors, a cat in a tree, a mask-less social gathering and even a Van Gogh painting to help them resolve the case.

While some of the examples were lighthearted, the case concerned a man whose wife was worried that he might kill himself. Police entered his Rhode Island home without a warrant and seized two handguns. The man said a ruling against him would give police a blank check to enter homes without a warrant if they were performing a “community caretaking” function.

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During the arguments, it seemed clear both liberal and conservative justices believe police should be able to enter a home in limited circumstances, though they worried about how to ensure police aren’t given too much leeway. Using hypothetical scenarios is one way the justices test the boundaries of various legal theories, and they came up with many Wednesday.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether police officers could enter the home of an elderly woman if they were told she was never late but missed a dinner date with neighbors and wasn’t answering her phone.

“The police are violating the Constitution because they walk in the back door to make sure she’s not lying on the floor?” he said skeptically during 90 minutes of arguments the court heard by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic. Later, Roberts wanted to know whether officers could enter a fenced backyard to get a cat out of a tree if the cat’s owners were away or whether they could go into a home to save a Van Gogh painting if water was dripping on the artwork.

Other justices also tested the potential limits on police’s authority. Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked whether, in a town with a high rate of coronavirus infections, police could enter a home if they saw through the window “a lot of people gathered together that are not wearing masks.”

Justice Samuel Alito said what troubles people about a “caretaking exception” is that “doesn’t seem to have any clear boundaries.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether officers in the case at hand could have taken “not just the gun but any bat, knife, anything else that in their judgment this man could have used” to kill himself.

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Prior court decisions allow police to enter a home without a warrant in emergencies. Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested allowing police warrantless entry into homes for community caretaking is most likely to be relevant in two scenarios: when an elderly person hasn’t been heard from and where there are potential suicide concerns. He suggested he was worried about police officers “backing away from going into houses” in those scenarios.

The case heard by the justices involved a Rhode Island couple, Edward and Kim Caniglia. In 2015, during an argument in their home in Cranston, Edward Caniglia put a gun on their home’s dining room table and told his wife: “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”

The weapon turned out to be unloaded, and Kim Caniglia ultimately spent the night at a motel. But she called police the next day when her husband didn’t answer her phone call. She told police she thought he might be suicidal.

Police spoke with Edward Caniglia at his home and he told officers he was fine. But he agreed to go to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, his lawyers say, after being promised that his two handguns wouldn’t be seized if he did. After an evaluation, he was discharged, but while he was away, police entered his home without a warrant and took his guns anyway. The weapons were only returned after he sued.

The Biden administration is urging the court to side with the officers.

The case is Caniglia v. Strom, 20-157.