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Supreme Court to hear case if cops can seize guns from homes without a warrant

A handgun being placed in a lock box. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Thomas Dow)
February 08, 2021

The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments next month to decide if law enforcement has the right to enter a home to seize firearms without a warrant, a move that has previously been approved in lower courts.

On March 24, 2021, the nation’s top court will hear arguments on Caniglia v. Strom, a case involving an argument between Mr. Caniglia and his wife, during which he put an unloaded gun on their table and said, “shoot me now and get it over with,” and law enforcement later confiscated his gun.

After their argument, Caniglia’s wife called the non-emergency police line, leading to a visit from law enforcement. The police convinced him to go to the hospital for evaluation, despite disagreeing that Mr. Caniglia was behaving “normal” or “agitated.”

While Mr. Caniglia was on his way to the hospital, his wife told the police that he had two pistols in the home, at which point the officers searched the home without a warrant; however, Mrs. Caniglia couldn’t provide legal consent because the police lied, telling her that Mr. Caniglia had consented to the seizure of his firearms.

The officers subsequently located and confiscated the two handguns, prompting Mr. Caniglia to sue the police for allegedly violating his 4th Amendment right to privacy, as well as his 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

The 4th Amendment protects Americans from warrantless searches of their homes, requiring government officials to show a judge probable cause that they will uncover criminal evidence.

However, some exceptions to this right do exist, including “exigent circumstances,” Forbes reported. For instance, if an officer sees an individual about to shoot another person through the window of a home, that officer has the right to enter the home to prevent the attack.

Another exception to the 4th Amendment is called “community caretaking.” The Supreme Court previously determined that police can bypass the warrant requirement to perform “community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute,” noting a situation when police took a gun from the trunk of an impounded vehicle without a warrant.

The debate comes down to whether the “community caretaking” exception applies to both home and vehicle searches. The nation’s top court will also address the standards that fall under the exception, including concerns that the police could use the exception to conduct warrantless searches of political demonstrators’ homes to ensure no violence is being planned, Forbes reported.

The court explicitly required an officer to act “reasonably” when executing warrantless searches. “As long as an officer might reasonably think that a warrantless search will alleviate a danger to the community, the search is considered constitutional,” the news outlet stated.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals previously decided in support of law enforcement regarding Caniglia v Strom, writing, “At its core, the community caretaking doctrine is designed to give police elbow room to take appropriate action when unforeseen circumstances present some transient hazard that requires immediate attention. Understanding the core purpose of the doctrine leads inexorably to the conclusion that it should not be limited to the motor vehicle context. Threats to individual and community safety are not confined to the highways.”