Supreme Court declines to expand police power to enter homes without warrant

"The very core of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee is the right of a person to retreat into his or her home and 'there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion,’ " Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court ruling.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to restrict police authority to enter a person’s home without a warrant. The unanimous decision follows a 2015 incident involving a Rhode Island man who police performed a wellness check on. 

The wellness visit came after Edward Caniglia, a resident of Cranston, Rhode Island got into an argument with his wife, Kim Caniglia on August 20, 2015. During their dispute, Caniglia placed a handgun he owned on the couple’s dining room table and asked his wife to shoot him “now and get it over with”, NBC News reports. 

U.S. Supreme Court
Clouds are seen above The U.S. Supreme Court building on May 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Kim Caniglia ended up hiding the gun and spending the night at a hotel. When she couldn’t get in contact with her husband the next day, she asked Rhode Island police to do a wellness check. Caniglia ultimately agreed to a psychiatric evaluation but instead of leaving it there, police waited until he left his home, entered it, and confiscated two handguns. 

The ACLU sued Rhode Island police on the grounds that their actions violated Caniglia’s 4th amendment rights which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday overturned a previous ruling on the case, (Caniglia v. Strom) by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that sided with Rhode Island police. 

“The very core of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee is the right of a person to retreat into his or her home and ‘there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion,’ ” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, NPR reports. 

Clarence Thomas
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)

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Though the court confirmed that there are restrictions to police authority to search homes without a warrant, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer also underscored the exception of community emergencies which police often take on. 

“A warrant to enter a home is not required … when there is a need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury,” wrote Roberts and Breyer. 

Justice Samuel Alito also addressed the specific situation of elderly people in his remarks. 

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“Today, more than ever, many people, including many elderly persons, live alone,” he wrote and added that they think of these homes as their castles “but it is doubtful that she would have wanted it to be the place where she died alone and in agony.” 

However, the Supreme Court ruling noted that the community care-taking exception more appropriately applies to vehicles rather than homes, citing a 1973 law that gives police the right to search impounded cars for unsecured firearms. 

“Recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that — a recognition that these tasks exist, and not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere,” wrote Thomas. 

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