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Biden admin calls on Supreme Court to allow warrantless gun confiscation from homes

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2020. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/TNS)
March 25, 2021

The Biden administration urged the Supreme Court to uphold a warrantless gun confiscation ruling as the nation’s top court heard oral arguments Wednesday on Caniglia v Strom, a case that could have major consequences for the Fourth Amendment where policing, due process and mental health are concerned.

In its first amicus brief before the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice argued the actions taken by law enforcement to confiscate the petitioner’s firearms without a warrant were “reasonable.”

“The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness,” the DOJ’s brief stated. “For criminal investigations, this Court has generally incorporated the Warrant Clause into the Fourth Amendment’s overarching reasonableness requirement, but it has not generally done so for searches or seizures objectively premised on justifications other than the investigation of wrongdoing.”

“The ultimate question in this case is therefore not whether the respondent officers’ actions fit within some narrow warrant exception, but instead whether those actions were reasonable. And under all the circumstances here, they were,” the brief added.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Caniglia and his wife were arguing when he put an unloaded gun on their table and said, “shoot me now and get it over with.” Following the argument, Caniglia’s wife called the non-emergency police line, leading to a visit from law enforcement. The police convinced Mr. Caniglia to go to the hospital for psychological evaluation, despite disagreeing that his behavior was “abnormal” 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 1st Circuit Court of Appeals previously decided in support of law enforcement, 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.”

The DOJ argued that when government officials enter a private space in the interest of public health or safety rather than investigating wrongdoing, the question of “probably cause” becomes secondary to that of “whether their actions are objectively reasonable.”

The DOJ also added that the High Court should uphold the previous ruling on qualified immunity grounds, asserting that the officers’ “actions did not violate any clearly established law so as to render the officers individually liable in a damages action.”

Some exceptions to the Fourth Amendment 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.

Critics of the Biden administration’s position argue it ignores a key aspect of the Fourth Amendment: the Security Clause.

According to the Institute for Justice, “to the Founding generation, ‘secure’ did not simply mean the right to be ‘spared’ an unreasonable search or seizure” but included “harms attributable to the potential for unreasonable searches and seizures.”

“The Fourth Amendment protects our right to be secure in our property, which means the right to be free from fear that the police will enter your house without warning or authorization,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Joshua Windham. “A rule that allows police to burst into your home without a warrant whenever they feel they are acting as ‘community caretakers’ is a threat to everyone’s security.”