Editorial: The Supreme Court shouldn’t weaken protection for privacy at home

If police want to enter your home as part of a criminal investigation, they generally must obtain a search warrant. But on March 24 the Supreme Court was asked to make an exception to that requirement — in some situations in which an officer is acting as a “community caretaker” checking to see if the occupant is all right.

The court should say no to that idea. Sometimes police may have to enter a home without a warrant to prevent a loss of life, but a new exception for some “wellness checks” would give law enforcement vast discretion and violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

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The case argued before the court last Wednesday originated in a domestic dispute in Cranston, Rhode Island. After an argument over a coffee mug, Edward Caniglia threw an unloaded gun on a table and said to his wife, Kim: “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?” She hid the gun in the couple’s bedroom and later, after the argument resumed, checked into a hotel.

When she couldn’t reach her husband by telephone the next day, Kim Caniglia called the police, and said she was worried that he might have killed himself. Police went to the couple’s home, where Edward Caniglia said he had no suicidal intentions.

Edward Caniglia went to a hospital for evaluation, but only, he says, because police assured him that they wouldn’t confiscate two guns he owned. After he was released from the hospital, where it was decided that he wasn’t suicidal, he learned that police had confiscated the weapons. (They were eventually returned.)

Caniglia went to court to sue for damages, claiming that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by seizing his guns after a warrantless entry into his home and requiring him to undergo a mental health evaluation. A federal judge dismissed his 4th Amendment claims, citing the role of the police in providing “community caretaking.” An appeals court agreed.

In 1973, the Supreme Court cited the “community caring” concept in upholding the search of a rental car to determine if it contained a police officer’s service weapon. But extending that exception to warrantless searches and seizures at someone’s home would be an unjustified expansion.

Several justices at last Wednesday’s oral argument worried about situations in which police might enter a home to check on the occupant. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked Shay Dvoretzky, Caniglia’s lawyer, about a hypothetical elderly woman who didn’t show up for dinner at a neighbor’s house and can’t be reached by phone.

Even in that situation, Dvoretzky said, the officer must obtain a warrant unless there was “consent or some objectively reasonable indication of an emergency.” He referred to the fact that police are already able to enter a home without a warrant if there are “exigent circumstances,” which can include a threat to human life.

The court shouldn’t create a new exception to the warrant requirement. If states don’t want to treat wellness checks the same way they do criminal investigations, they can experiment with requiring “administrative warrants,” a possibility mentioned by Justice Elena Kagan. But in the absence of a true emergency, police should be required to obtain permission to enter a home from a magistrate or other neutral official.

This case comes against the backdrop of a national debate about whether some functions performed by police should be entrusted to social workers or other personnel.

It’s a complicated issue: While police aren’t the appropriate first responders when people are experiencing psychiatric breakdowns or drug overdoses, in some cases mental health workers understandably want police backup in the case of violence.

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Still, police — unlike social workers — are enforcers of criminal law and they are often armed. Even if a police officer enters a home without a warrant to check on the welfare of its occupant, the officer can make an arrest if he sees evidence of a crime in plain sight. (And because the search itself was lawful, a defendant wouldn’t be able to have the evidence suppressed.)

Finally, while in many circumstances a police officer entering a home to make a welfare check might be a welcome sight, in others the officer’s arrival would provoke anger or perhaps even violence. Exempting “welfare checks” by police from the warrant requirement wouldn’t just undermine the 4th Amendment; it also could make police work even more dangerous.