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  • Jim Chapman

The warrantless confiscation of firearms is unconstitutional.

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Author: Jim Chapman


In Caniglia v. Strom, ___ U.S. ___, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021), the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide the constitutionality of the confiscation of a detainee’s firearms without a warrant. Specifically, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the police officers’ community caretaking duties justified the warrantless searches and seizures in a person’s home. The relevant facts are as follows.

During an argument with his wife at their Rhode Island home, Edward Caniglia retrieved a handgun from the bedroom, put it on the dining room table, and asked his wife to shoot him now and to get it over with. She declined and, instead, left to spend the night at a hotel. The next morning, when Caniglia’s wife discovered that she could not reach him by telephone, she called the police to request a welfare check on her husband.

Thereafter, law enforcement officers accompanied Caniglia’s wife to the home, where they encountered Caniglia on the porch. Caniglia spoke with the police officers and confirmed his wife’s account of the argument, but he denied that he was suicidal. The officers, however, thought that Caniglia posed a risk to himself or to others. Accordingly, the officers called an ambulance, and Caniglia agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation—but only after the officers allegedly promised not to confiscate his firearms. Once the ambulance had taken Caniglia away, the officers entered the home and seized the weapons. In doing so, the officers were guided by Caniglia’s wife—whom they allegedly misinformed about Caniglia’s wishes with respect to the confiscation of his firearms. Specifically, the officers entered the home and took two handguns.

Caniglia, then, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the police offers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they entered his home, seized him, and seized his firearms without a warrant. The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island granted summary judgment to police officers, and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision solely on the ground that the decision to remove Caniglia and his firearms from the premises fell within a “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Citing the Supreme Court’s statement in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973), that police officers often have non-criminal reasons to interact with motorists on public highways, the First Circuit extrapolated a freestanding community-caretaking exception that applied to both cars and to homes. Accordingly, the First Circuit saw no need to consider whether anyone had consented to the police officers’ actions; whether these actions were justified by “exigent circumstances”; or whether any state law permitted this kind of mental-health intervention. All that mattered to the First Circuit was that the law enforcement officers’ efforts to protect Caniglia and those around him were distinct from the normal work of criminal investigation, that they fell within the realm of reason, and that they generally tracked what the First Circuit viewed to be sound police procedure. Subsequently, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the First Circuit’s decision.

The Supreme Court began is discussion of Caniglia’s appeal by noting that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Indeed, the very core of this Fourth Amendment guarantee is the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there to be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.

That being said, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all unwelcomed intrusions on private property. On the contrary, the Fourth Amendment only prohibits unreasonable intrusions. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has recognized a few permissible invasions of the home and its curtilage. Perhaps most familiar are searches and seizures pursuant to a valid warrant. The Supreme Court has also held that law enforcement officers may enter private property without a warrant when certain exigent circumstances exist, including the need to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury. And, of course, officers may generally take actions that any private citizen might do without fear of liability, such as simply approaching a home and knocking on the front door.

However, the Supreme Court held that the First Circuit’s “community caretaking” rule established in this case went beyond anything that the Supreme Court had previously recognized. The First Circuit’s decision assumed that the police officers lacked a warrant or consent, and the First Circuit expressly disclaimed the possibility that the officers were reacting to a crime. The First Circuit also declined to consider whether any recognized exigent circumstances were present because the police officers had forfeited the point on appeal. Nor did the First Circuit find that the police officers’ actions were akin to what a private citizen might have had the authority to do if Caniglia’s wife had approached a neighbor for assistance instead of the police.

As a result, the Supreme Court concluded that neither the holding nor the logic of Cady justified the First Circuit’s approach. The Supreme Court conceded that Cady also involved a warrantless search for a firearm, but the Supreme Court distinguished Cady by noting that the location of the search in Cady was an impounded vehicle—not a home—a constitutional difference that the Cady opinion had repeatedly stressed. In fact, Cady expressly contrasted its treatment of a vehicle already under police control with a search of a car parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court opined that Cady’s unmistakable distinction between vehicles and homes placed into proper context the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. In Cady, the Supreme Court recognized that the frequency with which vehicles can become disabled or involved in accidents on public highways often requires police officers to perform non-criminal “community caretaking functions,” such as providing aid to motorists. But, this recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that—a recognition that these tasks exist and was not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that, what is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes. The Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to expand the scope of the exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into a home, and the Supreme Court refused to expand the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement in this case. Therefore, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment below and remand the case for further proceedings.

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