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RI CRIME

US Supreme Court to hear R.I. case involving warrantless seizure of guns

Federal appeals court ruled that a “community caretaking” exception allowed officers to remove a gun owner’s weapons in volatile 2015 domestic situation in Cranston

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg

PROVIDENCE — The US Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday in a Rhode Island case involving the clash of two powerful interests: defusing volatile domestic situations involving guns and protecting homes from warrantless searches and seizures.

The roots of the case reach back to Aug. 20, 2015, when a Cranston couple – Edward A. Caniglia and his wife, Kim Caniglia – began arguing over a coffee mug. The argument escalated, and Edward Caniglia grabbed an unloaded handgun and threw it on the kitchen table, telling his wife, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”

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When he went for a ride, his wife hid the gun between the mattress and box spring, packed a bag, and stayed at a hotel for the night. She called the Cranston police the next day, saying she was worried about her husband. The police accompanied her back to the house, and the ranking officer concluded that her husband posed a danger to himself or others.

An ambulance took Edward Caniglia to Kent Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, and officers seized two of his handguns while he was gone. Caniglia said he agreed to go to the hospital because the officers promised not to take his guns. Officers acknowledged no such agreement. He was not admitted to the hospital, nor charged with a crime. Though the police eventually returned the guns, Caniglia sued, claiming the police had violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Chief US District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr. rejected the claim of a Fourth Amendment violation, citing the “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. He said the gun seizure was reasonable considering the officers’ “legitimate safety concern” for Caniglia and his wife.

Caniglia appealed, and three judges from the Boston-based 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case, including former US Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter and Senior US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bruce M. Selya, a Rhode Islander who wrote a decision upholding the lower court.

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“There are widely varied circumstances, ranging from helping little children to cross busy streets to navigating the sometimes stormy seas of neighborhood disturbances, in which police officers demonstrate, over and over again, the importance of the roles that they play in preserving and protecting communities,” Selya wrote in March 2020.

He noted that in the 1973 case of Cady v. Dombrowski, the US Supreme Court ruled that in some circumstances, police may search a motor vehicle without first getting a warrant if they are engaged in a “community caretaking” function rather than investigating a crime.

The 1st Circuit ruling extended that exception to people’s homes.

“The community caretaking doctrine is designed to give police elbow room to take appropriate action when unforeseen circumstances present some transient hazard that requires immediate attention,” Selya wrote. “Understanding the core purpose of the doctrine leads inexorably to the conclusion that it should not be limited to the motor vehicle context. Threats to individual and community safety are not confined to the highways.”

By extending the exception to homes, the 1st Circuit differed from other federal courts, leading to Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing.

The ruling butts up against the legal maxim that “a man’s house is his castle,” and it has drawn objections from groups ranging from the American Conservative Union Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

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“The home is considered to be the place where privacy rights and the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment are at their peak,” Rhode Island ACLU executive director Steven Brown said Tuesday.

The police already have the ability to go into homes without warrant when there are “exigent circumstances,” meaning true emergencies, Brown said. “But to come up with another excuse in the absence of an emergency to allow police to waltz into your home should be of concern to anyone who values privacy,” he said.

In a legal brief, the ACLU said that extending the “community caretaking” exception to warrantless searches of homes would let the police bypass Fourth Amendment protections “in a startling array of circumstances.”

“These are not theoretical concerns,” the ACLU wrote. “In both state and federal courts, everything from loud music to leaky pipes have been used to justify warrantless invasion of the home.”

The Second Amendment Foundation filed a legal brief, saying the term “community caretaking” might “sound therapeutic and roll off the tongue in a paternalistic patter that makes one think of good neighbors and sanctuary from harsh realities.”

But as a constitutional doctrine, it means “law enforcement officers, with no oversight from the legislature or judiciary, are empowered, on their own initiative, to deprive a law-abiding citizen of the means of exercising the Second Amendment in their home,” the group said.

“Make no mistake, the community caretaking exception is a Trojan horse abrogation of the Fourth Amendment, designed to undermine the Second Amendment at the retail level of governance,” the foundation wrote.

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But the US Department of Justice filed a legal brief defending the actions of the Cranston police, saying the officers “confronted a specific, credible, and reasonably impending threat of suicide or domestic violence.”

“Faced with an ‘unenviable choice’ about how or whether to intervene, the officers reasonably decided not to leave petitioner ‘agitated, ostensibly suicidal, and with two handguns at his fingertips,’” the federal lawyers wrote.

Marc DeSisto, a lawyer for the Cranston officials, said courts have long recognized the difficult position police officers face when responding to calls for help, rather than reports of crime. “Especially when self-harm is threatened, decisions must be made with an eye towards deescalating and calming the situation,” he said.

“Society demands and deserves that first responders, including police, protect and serve their communities,” DeSisto wrote. “Whether it is preventing suicide, protecting domestic partners, responding to natural disasters, or helping children and the elderly, such functions can be and have been performed for over two centuries consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

Sidney Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, noted that in 2018 Rhode Island enacted “red flag” law that allows courts to disarm individuals who are believed by law enforcement to represent a violent threat to themselves or others.

DeSisto’s legal brief noted that the “red flag” law took effect three years after the incident involving Caniglia, so it wouldn’t apply in this case. But Wordell said the law now provides a means of removing weapons from volatile domestic situations, and it provides a process for returning guns after a “cooling down” period.

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“Law enforcement doesn’t have the luxury of determining what didn’t happen,” Wordell said. “But we do know data around use of weapons in domestic violence situations is that someone who threatens violence or is prone to violence is probably going to carry that out.”

While the high court arguments will focus on the concept that “a man’s house is his castle,” Wordell said, “That is a shared home – she lives there, too.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.