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Supreme Court Mulls Whether Police Can Enter Home Without Warrant To Save A Life

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case testing whether police may enter a person's home and seize guns without a warrant in order to safeguard the homeowner from potential harm.
Patrick Semansky
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case testing whether police may enter a person's home and seize guns without a warrant in order to safeguard the homeowner from potential harm.

Just what sort of emergency allows police to enter your home without a warrant? That was the question before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday. The court's imagination seemed endless, as the justices presented hypotheticals that involved rescuing everything from screaming babies to cats in a tree to a water-logged Van Gogh painting.

The actual case before the court involved a heated argument between a long-married couple, Edward and Kim Caniglia. He brought out a gun and told her to shoot him to put him out of his "misery." Then after he left the house in a huff, she hid the gun, and spent the night in a motel. The next morning, unable to reach her husband, she asked police to escort her home because was afraid he might have harmed himself.

Police found the husband on the front porch, and sent him for a psychological evaluation. Later that day, doctors concluded he was not a threat to himself or others and released him. In the meantime, police had confiscated his guns and ammunition. So he sued, alleging an illegal seizure and search of his home.

The lower courts ruled that police could enter the home and under the so-called the community care-taking exception to the Constitution's warrant requirement.

Representing Edward Caniglia, lawyer Shay Dvoretzky said that an exception like that would "eviscerate" the warrant protections of the Fourth Amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts challenged the limits of Dvoretzky's argument. Suppose an elderly neighbor doesn't show up for a planned weekly dinner, he said. She's never late, she isn't answering her phone, and her back door is open, so the neighbors call the police. "Would that be enough" for the police to enter the house without a warrant to check up on the missing neighbor?

"No" answered Dvoretzky, "I think that alone would not be enough."

Roberts followed up with references to beloved television shows. Would the situation be different if the cop was small town "Andy from Mayberry" vs "Kojak" from the big city?

"No," replied lawyer Dvoretzky. Police can only enter if there were a genuine emergency going on at that very moment.

Justice Stephen Breyer noted that while the court has allowed police to enter a home in "exigent circumstances" without a warrant, those situations are very limited, and don't take into account "dozens and dozens" of real-life situations, like "a baby's been crying for five hours, and nobody seems to be around."

Dvoretzky contended that a warrantless entry could only occur in a true emergency, but his definition was so narrow it didn't seem to satisfy many of the justices.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that the statistics on residential falls and suicides are "shocking."

"Every single day, on average, there are 65 suicides by gunshot in the United States," he said, noting that "police officers are critical...as in this instance" to suicide prevention.

He seemed to disagree with Justice Clarence Thomas and fellow Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, who appeared to think a warrant is required for such an entry, even though the entry is not in pursuit of evidence of a crime.

The Supreme Court has never explicitly recognized that police may enter the home without a warrant as part of their "community care-taking" duties.

There are some long-standing exceptions to the warrant requirement in "exigent circumstances, " such as hot pursuit of a suspect. But those are cases involving allegations of criminal conduct. And the case before the court on Monday did not. Still, lawyer Marc DeSisto, representing the Cranston, R.I., police, struggled from the get-go.

Chief Justice Roberts posed this hypothetical: Let's suppose that a neighbor calls police about a cat stuck in a tree on the Johnsons' property, and the Johnsons are away. Can the police enter their locked fence around the yard to get the the cat down. "Is that community care-taking?" Roberts asked.

Yes, replied DeSisto. "To me, climbing a tree and getting a cat doesn't interfere with the privacy rights."

Justice Samuel Alito wasn't buying such a broad argument, asking, "Can we narrow this down" to a life-threatening injury? But DeSisto insisted that whether you're talking about a treed cat or a threatened suicide, the standard for allowing an intervention without a warrant is the same.

Justice Elena Kagan sounded skeptical, pointing out that DeSisto's definition of the community care-taking standard would "cover a lot of stuff." Justice Sonia Sotomayor chimed in, asking what are the limits?

Seeking to rescue the argument for the police, Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Morgan Ratner asserted that "the key principle is if someone is at risk of serious harm and it's reasonable for officials to intervene now, that is enough. The officials don't need to show that the harm is mere moments away."

But Chief Justice Roberts, puckishly, expressed continued concern for the safety of his hypothetical feline. "Ms. Ratner, how do you feel about the cat?"

Ratner said the government cares about only one thing: Whether there is a potential for serious harms to people.

She left the cat up the tree.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.