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George Floyd’s Death Looms in Background of SCOTUS Search Case

March 12, 2021, 8:20 PM

The Supreme Court will hear argument later this month over the scope of police power just ahead of opening statements in the trial of Derek Chauvin, whose role in the death of George Floyd prompted widespread law enforcement scrutiny.

The connection isn’t lost on constitutional lawyer David Gans, who’s supporting the fight against the government in the high court case.

The justices are set to hear argument on March 24 in Caniglia v. Strom, a case addressing whether the “community caretaking” doctrine—which has allowed police to search a towed vehicle without a warrant—extends to the home.

Gans said he thinks about the dispute “against the backdrop of everything that’s happening since George Floyd was killed almost a year ago,” in the latest episode of Bloomberg Law’s “Cases and Controversies” podcast.

One of the lessons, Gans said, is we need to “think about what the police do and when it’s important to have someone who’s trained and designed to use force and inflict harm, and when we should think about situations where we don’t need the police to enter and use force.”

In the case before the justices, officers responded to a Rhode Island residence after Kim Caniglia called out of concern that her husband Edward might die by suicide. Edward later sued the officers who seized his guns from the home.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled for the officers, deeming the situation “precisely the sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum that the community caretaking doctrine can help to alleviate.”

Gans, however, sees applying the doctrine here as “a sweeping expansion of police power.” He’s director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights & Citizenship Program at the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center. His organization is one of many supporting Caniglia at the high court—ranging from the ACLU to libertarian and Second Amendment groups.

“If the police can simply say, ‘We’re going to enter the home based on this sort of nebulous interest,’ that really guts the core of the Fourth Amendment,” Gans said, noting that the caretaking doctrine applies in situations where police don’t need to suspect criminal activity.

Police Perspective

Law enforcement has high court backing in the Caniglia case, including from a state coalition and the federal government.

The State and Local Legal Center’s Lisa Soronen worked on one of the government-side amicus briefs, filed by nationwide municipal groups.

She pointed out that police were on the scene in response to Kim Caniglia’s call.

“What if there’s no one to call?” Soronen asked.

“Who’s supposed to help you?” she went on. “That’s a question that has to be answered. We’ve answered it by saying the police, in our society, for better or for worse.”

The dispute is one of a number of search and seizure cases at the court this term.

Gans noted a decision is pending in Lange v. California, over whether the hot-pursuit doctrine allows police to chase people into homes suspected of committing only misdemeanors. The justices are hearing another search and seizure case the day before the Caniglia argument, dealing with tribal authority.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at sstern@bloomberglaw.com

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