"The Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Fourth Amendment protects the home as sacred..."
On May 17, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in the Fourth Amendment case Caniglia v. Strom. Shay Dvoretzky and Emily Kennedy of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the lead lawyers representing Edward Caniglia, help explain the significance of the decision.
Q: What was this case about?
The question in this case was whether the "community caretaking" exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to homes.
The community caretaking exception originated with a 1973 Supreme Court decision, Cady v. Dombrowski, which upheld the warrantless search of a car that was in police custody. The officer in that case was looking for a gun that he believed was in the car and could have fallen into the wrong hands. In upholding the search, Cady recognized that police often perform noninvestigatory “community caretaking” functions, such as assisting with car accidents and traffic control.
Some lower courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Caniglia v. Strom, had extended the exception established in Cady to also allow warrantless searches of homes. In this case, Mr. Caniglia’s wife called the police to request a welfare check. The couple had argued the night before, and in a melodramatic gesture, Mr. Caniglia had placed an unloaded gun on the table and said, "Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?" His wife spent the evening at a hotel, and when she could not reach Mr. Caniglia the next morning, she called the police because she feared he had committed suicide.
...the Court held that the “community caretaking” exception does not extend to the home...
The police spoke with Mr. Caniglia at his home, and even though he was calm and denied any suicidal intent, they decided to send him — involuntarily — to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. As soon as he left his home, they entered it and seized guns from his bedroom and garage. Although the hospital released Mr. Caniglia the same day (with a hefty bill for the police-ordered services), he was unable to retrieve his firearms from the police for months.
Mr. Caniglia sued the officers and the city for violating his Fourth Amendment rights, but the First Circuit upheld the officers’ actions as an exercise of their “community caretaking” functions. In a 9-0 opinion by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court held that the “community caretaking” exception does not extend to the home, narrowing police powers to search homes without a warrant and repudiating the First Circuit’s decision.
Q: Why is this decision significant?
The Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Fourth Amendment protects the home as sacred.
The Court’s holding is a significant victory for Americans concerned about the sanctity of their homes.
The government cannot intrude there without a warrant or a true emergency. The First Circuit’s now discarded standard would have allowed officers to demand entry into people’s homes based on subjective and undefined “community caretaking” needs. In rejecting that standard, the Supreme Court reaffirmed bedrock Fourth Amendment principles, and held that police do not have “an open-ended license to perform” community caretaking tasks in the home.
The Court’s holding is a significant victory for Americans concerned about the sanctity of their homes. The diverse amicus support for Mr. Caniglia at the Supreme Court demonstrates the breadth of interests at stake: The ACLU and the American Conservative Union Foundation filed a joint amicus brief, and other amici included the Pacific Legal Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Institute for Justice, the American Association of Suicidology and several gun rights organizations.
Q: What do you make of the multiple concurrences, the length of which far surpasses the Court’s opinion?
The Court is unanimous that there is no "community caretaking" exception to the Fourth Amendment for homes: Police either need a warrant or a true emergency to enter a home. The concurrences suggest that different Justices may feel differently about what constitutes a true emergency.
The argument spanned more than 100 minutes, and the rebuttal included an open floor for free-for-all questioning by the Justices.
At oral argument, several Justices pressed both sides and the United States on a range of hypotheticals — rats in the Bubonic plague, elderly neighbors failing to show up for dinner dates, cats stuck in trees. Although the Court is notoriously rigid about the clock, and in the era of telephonic arguments about the sequencing of the Justices’ questions, the Chief Justice allowed the advocates extra time. The argument spanned more than 100 minutes, and the rebuttal included an open floor for free-for-all questioning by the Justices.
The concurrences touch on many of the hypotheticals expressed at argument. While they present important concerns, the defendants in Mr. Caniglia’s case didn’t claim that they were responding to a true emergency. They relied solely on their community caretaking function, which the Court made clear does not justify warrantless intrusions of the home.
That such a lengthy argument generated an unusually short (4-page), unanimous opinion underscores Mr. Caniglia’s resounding victory on the "community caretaking" issue presented in the case.
Q: This was the first merits case you’ve handled since launching Skadden’s new Supreme Court & Appellate practice. What has that been like?
The Court granted certiorari in Caniglia days before Skadden launched this practice, so our start has been exciting and rewarding.
Skadden has always been committed to pro bono work, and we have been grateful for the support of a robust pro bono practice, both in Caniglia and in other cases we are handling. Our group is also working on a number of appeals involving important business issues, in areas such as federal preemption, tax, energy and securities.
We look forward to what lies ahead as we continue to grow.