The Supreme Court declined Monday to make it easier for the nation's police to enter private homes and conduct searches without a warrant for safety reasons.
The court ruled unanimously that police in Rhode Island went too far when they entered a home to search for a gun belonging to a man who had agreed to seek a mental health evaluation. The police said they were acting under one of their community caretaking functions that allows searches without a warrant.
But in ruling against the police, several of the justices made clear that they were not deciding that police cannot enter a home without a warrant to check on an older person who might need medical aid.
The case arose when Edward Caniglia of Cranston got into an argument with his wife, retrieved a handgun from the bedroom and put it on the dining room table. He asked her to shoot him "now and get it over with."
SCOTUS makes important 4th Amendment rulingJan. 23, 2012
His wife spent the night at a hotel but was unable to reach Caniglia the next morning by phone, so she asked the police to perform a welfare check. They persuaded him to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation — but only after the police agreed that they would not confiscate his firearms.
After he left, they entered the home anyway, found two handguns and took the weapons away.
Caniglia sued, arguing that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching the house without a warrant. But he lost his challenge in the lower courts.
Monday's Supreme Court ruling said the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment is a narrow one, stemming from a 1973 decision that said police could search an impounded car for an unsecured firearm.
Police officers are called upon to perform many civic tasks beyond their normal law enforcement duties, but that recognition is not "an open-ended license to perform them anywhere," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the court.
"What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes."
Even so, said Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, "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."
Justice Samuel Alito expressed similar caution about applying Monday's ruling too broadly.
"Today, more than ever, many people, including many elderly persons, live alone," he wrote. Someone who was seriously ill might regard her home as her castle, "but it is doubtful that she would have wanted it to be the place where she died alone and in agony."