MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Monday the 5th of April, 2021. Welcome to another week of The World and Everything in It. Good morning! I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s time for Legal Docket.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down three decisions, all unanimous in judgment.
First, a defeat for a man who sued Facebook for harassing him with unwanted text messages. To make matters worse, the man never had a Facebook account, so he accused the company of violating a federal law that bans so-called robocalls.
Problem for him is the way Congress drafted the law. Facebook lawyer Paul Clement argued it really all came down to basic grammar:
CLEMENT: Under ordinary rules of grammar, a restrictive modifier that follows two disjunctive verbs modifies both, not just the second one.
Got that? Let me move this out of the abstract, and put it this way. Facebook is saying it didn’t violate the law because it sent text messages only to phone numbers already in its database.
What the federal law bans is calling randomly or sequentially generated numbers. Not the case here. Facebook didn’t do that, so the messages—while annoying and unwanted—weren’t illegal robocalls.
In a second ruling, the Court upheld the changes to media ownership rules that the Federal Communications Commission made. A self-described social-justice group challenged the FCC changes as giving insufficient attention to media ownership by women and minorities.
The high court disagreed, finding the agency well within its authority and that the FCC did give sufficient attention to ownership diversity questions to pass legal muster.
And finally, Georgia defeats Florida, and no, not in college sports. The state of Georgia prevailed over the state of Florida in a dispute over water in the Apalachicola River Basin.
Florida lies downstream and so it sued Georgia, claiming that the state uses too much water and as a result has wrecked Florida’s oyster industry.
But the justices didn’t see it that way. Again, unanimously, the court found Florida failed to meet its standard of proof and therefore the court cannot order reapportionment of the water. In short, case dismissed.
REICHARD: Alright. Now on to oral argument today, one case.
It arises from an argument between a husband and wife in Rhode Island, a dispute sparked by the choice of the wrong coffee mug!
Here’re the facts: Edward Caniglia told Kim Caniglia, his wife of 27 years, that he didn’t want to drink from a certain coffee cup.
Reason? Well, his brother in law, Kim Caniglia’s brother, had used that coffee cup and Mr. Caniglia said—his words now—I don’t want to “catch a case of dishonesty” by drinking from it.
That particular flashpoint led to more bickering, that led to his leaving the house and going out for a drive, which turned out not to help. When he came back, they bickered some more.
Finally, Edward Caniglia fetched a gun and asked his wife: Just shoot me. Put me out of my misery.
Kim Caniglia was shocked.
What she did was hide the gun from her husband.
Then she left the house and checked herself into a motel for the night.
The next morning, she phoned her husband, but he didn’t answer.
So she called the police, and fearing he might’ve taken his life, she asked that they check in on him.
When police arrived at the home, they found Edward Caniglia cooperative, but still pretty angry. He confirmed his wife’s account of the dispute, with one exception: he denied that he was suicidal.
Still, based on the totality of circumstances, the officers thought Mr. Caniglia needed medical attention. So police convinced him to go get a psychiatric evaluation.
Meantime, Mrs. Caniglia returned home, and with her husband at the hospital, she led police to two weapons in the house which the officers seized.
And that’s where this legal dispute arises.
Here is Edward Caniglia’s lawyer, Shay Dvoretzky:
DVORETZKY: The Fourth Amendment recognizes the sanctity of the home by drawing a firm line at the door. The government cannot cross that line without a warrant unless there is consent or exigent circumstances. Here, there was neither.
In other words, Mr. Caniglia had not consented to seizure of his guns. Police told his wife he had, but that wasn’t true. So even her consent was based on a false premise.
The Caniglias now argue that police should have obtained a warrant first, following the Fourth Amendment. That says people have the right to be secure in their homes against unreasonable searches and that warrants to search have to be based upon probable cause.
Exceptions exist: for example, police don’t need a warrant to do a search after an arrest, or in exigent circumstances.
In this case, though, police claim another exception to pursuing a warrant: the community caretaking exception.
The Supreme Court created that one 50 years ago to make it easier for police to deal with, for instance, broken-down cars left on roadways. But it’s expanded over the years to include things like helping people who are sick or in distress.
And now the question is whether that exception originally created for vehicles extends to homes.
Caniglia’s lawyer Dvoretzky argued absolutely not.
Chief Justice John Roberts questions him:
ROBERTS: Does it matter if we’re talking about a caretaking, community caretaking, what the community is like? Could be that somebody like Andy of Mayberry is alright because people expect him to keep track of things, but you know, Kojak isn’t?
DVORETZKY: I don’t think police would have different license to enter the home without a warrant based on those sorts of considerations, no, your honor.
So no line drawing based on who the officer is.
Lawyer for the Rhode Island police, Marc Desisto, laid out the line that the police prefer:
DESISTO: Not allowing the caretaking actions may have resulted in death or injury. And that’s why an absolute prohibition against warrantless entry is wrong. Community caretaking in the home without a warrant should be allowed when it is objectively reasonable to do so.
Police need some leeway, Desisto argued, to allow quick decisions made in rapidly changing situations.
Chief Justice Roberts wondered how far to take that.
ROBERTS: Let’s suppose Mr. Desisto, that police get a call from a—from a neighbor who says, you know, the Johnsons are away, I know they’re not here, and they’ve got this fence around their backyard. It’s locked, but there’s a cat up in the tree. Can you come and help, you know, get the cat down? Is that community caretaking?
DESISTO: Yes, I do. I think that is community caretaking, and here’s why. You look at the intrusion, and the intrusion is simply climbing a fence and getting up in a tree, and you balance that against the privacy right.
“Balance.” Where to put the fulcrum under the see-saw, between preventing harm on one side and preserving privacy on the other.
Listen to Justice Samuel Alito in this exchange with Dvoretzky, lawyer for the couple:
ALITO: a person in the house may commit suicide where suicide is not a crime. Is that a permissible reason for a search?
DVORETZKY: For — for a search by an officer without any other authorization, just in the officer’s discretion?
ALITO: Without consent.
DVORETZKY: Without consent, no, that’s not a permissible reason for a search.
ALITO: Even if the officer has probable cause to believe the person will commit suicide?
DVORETZKY: I think it may depend on the immediacy of the situation in—in—in that hypothetical.
Immediacy was on Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s mind. Sometimes, the timeline can’t be known in advance.
KAVANAUGH: The starkest form of your position will lead to officers backing away from going into houses when old people have fallen or there’s concern about that or when there’s a risk of suicide.
DVORETZKY: Justice Kavanaugh, in a situation like this, the officers could have involved a mental health professional, and if they were unable to involve one—
KAVANAUGH: But there’s time—time is of the essence in—in these cases.
The suggestion that police ought to first consult with mental health professionals fell flat with most of the justices.
Justice Stephen Breyer didn’t want any new rule to swallow up the whole point of the Fourth Amendment.
BREYER: There are so many situations where it’s obvious the police should enter. You know—a baby’s been crying for five hours, nobody seems to be around. A rat’s come out of a house at a time when rats carry serious disease and have to be stopped. I mean we all can think of dozens of instances. And if we call those “exigent circumstances,” we weaken the exigent circumstances. And if we move to a whole new thing like caretaker, I don’t know what we do. So what’s your answer to my dilemma legally?
Dvoretzky, representing the couple, had this answer for Justice Breyer: authorities have to analyze each exigent circumstance, see if it’s a true emergency, and, if so, is it one that demands immediate intervention?
But defining what that means remained elusive.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett came up with a scenario that doesn’t seem so hypothetical these days.
Listen to this exchange with the lawyer for the police, DeSisto:
BARRETT: There’s a lot of concern about it being an umbrella for lots of different things. Let’s say that in a town with a high rate of COVID infection, police look through the window and they can see a lot of people gathered together that are not wearing masks. Can they enter?
DESISTO: Yes. But—but, see, I think that gets—there may be—there may be a criminal or, you know, a violation for so many people entering that would allow them.
BARRETT: No, that wasn’t part of my hypothetical. No criminal—you know, it’s just that there’s—there’s no crime, you know, that—say that there’s a mask ordinance that carries no penalty. People are told to wear masks, but there’s no penalty for it.
DESISTO: Yes, I—I—yes, I’d look at the community caretaking test. It’s a transient hazard. There’s a non-investigatory reason for engaging in that activity going in. They have articulable facts. They’ve seen it. And there—it depends on what they do. If they go in and just disperse the crowd, I think that fits within community caretaking.
The justices’ questions showed they are worried about turning every interaction with police into an invitation to invade the home, as one amicus brief warned. But they also want to protect the vulnerable among us, and not hamstring the police out of too much caution.
A tough job. The circuits are split on this question, so clarity is needed.
ROBERTS: Thank you counsel. The case is submitted.
And that’s this week’s Legal Docket.