Supreme Court Closes Fourth Amendment Loophole That Let Cops Seize Guns Without Warrants
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to give police “an open-ended license” to enter homes and seize firearms without a warrant. Allowing such searches, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court in Caniglia v. Strom, would infringe on the “very core” of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.”
Back in August 2015, Edward Caniglia was in a fierce argument with Kim, his wife of 22 years, after he made a joke about a coffee mug and his brother-in-law. Looking to end the row, Edward grabbed an unloaded handgun from the bedroom and asked Kim, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”
She didn’t. Instead, Kim decided to stay at a motel that night. The next morning, Kim tried calling Edward. No response. Concerned, she then asked police in Cranston, Rhode Island to check on her husband and to escort her home.
When officers arrived, Edward strongly denied he was suicidal; an incident report even stated that Edward “seemed normal” and “was calm for the most part.” After much cajoling by the officers (and falsely promising not to take his guns), Edward underwent a psychiatric evaluation at a local hospital.
While he was gone, police quickly entered his home and seized two handguns without a warrant. Even after Edward was discharged from the hospital later that same day, police refused to return the firearms and only relented when he filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court.
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Critically, the guns were seized without Caniglia’s consent, while law enforcement conceded it wasn’t related to a crime or involved any “exigent circumstance,” i.e. where people are in imminent danger or need emergency assistance. Nevertheless, a district court and then the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the seizures as a form of “community caretaking.”
Almost 50 years ago, the Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski ruled that police could search an impounded car without a warrant, creating a very narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment. Citing “the frequency with which a vehicle can become disabled or involved in an accident on public highways,” the court in Cady declared that towing and securing those vehicles against loss and theft “may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”
But the First Circuit instead saw community caretaking as a way to give “elbow room” to a police officer, who “must act as a master of all emergencies [and] is ‘expected to…provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’” Given such a broad expansion of law enforcement power, the court ruled that the officers who seized Caniglia’s guns without a warrant “did not exceed the proper province of their community caretaking responsibilities.”
Caniglia appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted his cert petition in November. Support for his case soon earned amicus briefs from groups all across the ideological spectrum, including the American Association of Suicidology, the ACLU, Gun Owners of America, the Institute for Justice, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Second Amendment Law Center.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration, as well as the state attorneys general for Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah, both separately defended the warrantless seizures as “justified” and urged the Supreme Court to rule against Caniglia.
They declined. In just four short pages, Justice Thomas rebuked the First Circuit for expanding “community caretaking” to “beyond anything this Court has recognized.” “Neither the holding nor logic of Cady justified that approach,” he added. Though both cases centered around warrantless searches for firearms, the search in Cady occurred in “an impounded vehicle—not a home—‘a constitutional difference’ that the opinion repeatedly stressed.”
“What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes,” Justice Thomas wrote, “and this Court has repeatedly ‘declined to expand the scope of…exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.’” Though the Supreme Court has previously recognized that “police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society,” this was “not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere,” the justice declared.
“Today, the Court confirmed that the government cannot enter someone’s home without a warrant simply for the sake of convenience,” said Institute for Justice President Scott Bullock. “In doing so, the Court reaffirmed that people’s property rights cannot be trumped by an extremely broad, vague concept of ‘community caretaking.’”