The Supreme Court ruled Monday that warrantless gun confiscation from Americans’ homes is unconstitutional, voting unanimously on the side of a Rhode Island man whose firearms were taken by law enforcement without a warrant after his wife expressed concerns that he might hurt himself.
According to Caniglia v Strom, a lower court had previously determined that police confiscating the guns without a warrant fell under the Fourth Amendment’s “community caretaking” exception, but a 9-0 vote from the nation’s top court struck down that ruling.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court, stating that law enforcement can execute “many civic tasks in modern society,” but there is “not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”
“The very core of the Fourth Amendment,” Thomas wrote, is the “right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable search and seizure.”
Some exceptions to the 4th 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 – the one on which this case was based – 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.
“In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that the officers who patrol the ‘public highways’ are often called to discharge noncriminal ‘community caretaking functions,’ such as responding to disabled vehicles or investigating accidents. But searches of vehicles and homes are constitutionally different, as the Cady opinion repeatedly stressed,” Thomas wrote in the court’s opinion.
In the case, 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 rights.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion for the ruling in which he addressed existing “red flag” laws that also call into question Fourth Amendment rights.
“This case also implicates another body of law that petitioner glossed over: the so-called “red flag” laws that some States are now enacting. These laws enable the police to seize guns pursuant to a court order to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons,” Alito wrote.
“They typically specify the standard that must be met and the procedures that must be followed before firearms may be seized,” he continued. “Provisions of red flag laws may be challenged under the Fourth Amendment, and those cases may come before us. Our decision today does not address those issues.”
In March, the Biden administration urged the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court’s ruling, arguing 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.