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Supreme Court Restricts Police Authority To Enter A Home Without A Warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday against warrantless searches by police and seizures in the home in a case brought by a man whose guns officers confiscated after a domestic dispute.

"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 for the court.

The case 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 she 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 search and seizure of his home.

The lower courts ruled that police could enter the home and under the so-called the community caretaking exception to the Constitution's warrant requirement. But Thomas, writing for the unanimous court, noted that the "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."

"What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes," he wrote.

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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.
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