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Wednesday, December 8, 2021
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Supreme Court Considers Fourth Amendment Exception To Let Cops Seize Guns Without A Warrant

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A U.S. Supreme Court case that could dramatically expand the ability of police to enter homes without warrants, including to seize firearms, had a wide-ranging and freewheeling oral argument on Wednesday. In debating an exception to the Fourth Amendment, the justices managed to invoke Albert Camus, crying babies, dangerous falls by the elderly, Kojak, mask ordinances, plague rats, tree-climbing cats, and Vincent van Gogh. 

The case, Caniglia v. Strom, began with a heated argument between an elderly married couple in Cranston, Rhode Island. During the squabble, Edward Caniglia grabbed an unloaded handgun and asked his wife Kim, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”

Kim decided to spend that night at a motel. Concerned about her husband, the following morning Kim asked Cranston police to perform a “well check” on Edward. When approached by police, Edward denied he was suicidal, but officers still insisted he undergo a psychiatric evaluation at a local hospital; he was immediately discharged. 

But while Edward was gone, police seized two handguns from the couple without a warrant and refused to return them until Edward was forced to bring a civil rights lawsuit. To justify the seizure, police invoked the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, which the Supreme Court first crafted to deal with impounded cars and highway safety.  Despite its vehicle-specific origins, both a district court and the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the warrantless gun seizures, expanding the exception to encompass private homes. 

Yet during oral argument on Wednesday, the justices were more focused on crafting abstract hypotheticals than analyzing the case’s actual facts, a point not lost on Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “I think what everyone has forgotten here is that, at least in this situation, there was no immediate danger to the person threatening suicide and no immediate danger to the wife because the suicide person was removed to a hospital,” the justice noted. 

Nevertheless, police “decided on their own to go in and seize the gun.” Sotomayor also wondered if the officers could “have gone into the house and taken not just the gun but any bat, knife, anything else that in their judgment this man could have used to commit suicide?”

As she recounted, the case involved not one, but two, types of seizures: forcing Edward to go to the hospital and then taking his guns. When police “removed this gentleman and [took] him to the hospital,” Sotomayor explained, “that’s a seizure, because they had reason to believe that he was threatening suicide.” In Sotomayor’s view, that was “very much an exigent circumstance,” i.e. an emergency situation long exempt from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. 

But Sotomayor was less sympathetic toward the officers’ second seizure. “Missing here,” she noted, “is the next step, which is going into the home without attempting to secure consent from the wife and seizing the gun and then keeping it indefinitely until a lawsuit is filed.”

Her comments hinted at a way for the Supreme Court to still allow police to perform wellness checks (which were repeatedly raised during oral argument) when there isn’t time to get a warrant, but without giving officials broad authority to break into homes and conduct warrantless seizures. “When we permit police to search and seize without some standard, we run the risk of situations like this one repeating themselves,” Sotomayor remarked. 

This risk featured prominently in the amicus briefs filed by gun-rights advocates. “Expansion of the ‘community caretaking’ exception into the home will be used by police in jurisdictions with onerous or constitutionally-questionable firearm restrictions to turn every call to a house into a search for guns under the pretext of ‘helping’ those present,” warned a joint amicus brief filed by the Second Amendment Law Center, the California Rifle and Pistol Association, and Gun Owners of California. Simply put, “the Fourth Amendment has no ‘gun’ exception.”

Although Caniglia v. Strom centers around seizing guns from someone suspected of being suicidal, its reach will be much, much broader. Should the Supreme Court adopt the Biden Administration’s argument that “the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless seizure or home entry that is reasonably necessary to protect health or safety,” such public health and safety concerns could “become a pretext for law enforcement,” argued Shay Dvoretzky, who argued for Caniglia before the High Court. 

“Nearly every criminal violation has public safety implications, so dispensing with the warrant requirement whenever police can point to a health or safety motive would eviscerate the Fourth Amendment,” said Dvoretzky. “Virtually any criminal situation can also be described in health or safety terms,” he added. “For any situation involving drugs and alcohol,” Dvoretzky posited, “police could just say they were going into the home in order to make sure that the suspect was okay.”

Nor would police need warrants to enter a home to arrest someone they had been following, since officers could easily claim the arrestee “would be dangerous for the other occupants of the home.” Building on that point, Justice Neil Gorsuch asked, “What does the government do that doesn’t involve health or safety?” 

But Gorsuch also sharply criticized Dvoretzky for proposing officials could secure so-called “administrative” warrants as an alternative. “If the government can just get an administrative warrant to come in to test for illness, to check the temperature of the house, whether it’s too hot, too cold,” he asked, “what’s left of the Fourth Amendment?”

The incredibly broad reach of the community-caretaking exception was easily seen when the justices grilled Marc DeSisto, who represented the Cranston police officers. When Chief Justice John Roberts asked if community caretaking would justify letting cops cross over a neighbor’s locked fence and enter their yard to rescue “a cat caught up in a tree,” DeSisto freely admitted that would be “a caretaking activity.”

Likewise, when prompted by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, DeSisto claimed that community caretaking could authorize police to enter someone’s home to enforce a town’s mask ordinance if “they can see a lot of people gathered together that are not wearing masks.” “Caretaking functions are for benign purposes, not for criminal investigations,” explained DeSisto. 

This lack of “limiting principles” unsettled several of the justices. “If you take a caretaker exception and read that into the word ‘reasonable,’ there’s no stopping. We don’t know how far we’ll go,” said Justice Stephen Breyer. It’s “troubling” that exception “doesn’t seem to have any clear boundaries,” Justice Samuel Alito added. 

For her part, Assistant Solicitor General Morgan Ratner, who argued on behalf of the Biden Administration, didn’t “think the court should get into harms to property or abatement of nuisances here” when considering the community-caretaking doctrine. “This case is fundamentally different from most of the court’s Fourth Amendment cases because the question is not act now or get a warrant first,” Ratner argued. 

“It’s act now or not at all. That’s because there is no warrant process in a lot of these non-investigatory situations, from welfare checks on elderly residents to intervention in current suicide threats.” Given that, she vigorously defended the officers who seized Caniglia’s firearms for making a “reasonable choice.”

But as Justice Sotomayor later pointed out, “there’s a big difference between” conducting a wellness check on someone believed to be suicidal and seizing guns from a home “where the person is no longer there or a suicide threat.” Plus there were less intrusive options in Caniglia’s case, alternatives the lower courts glossed over. At the very least, police “certainly could have asked the psychiatrists whether they should remove the guns or not.”

“The Founders wrote the Fourth Amendment to prevent abusive and arbitrary searches and to make us secure in our persons and property,” explained Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Robert Frommer, who leads IJ’s Fourth Amendment work and co-authored an amicus brief in the case. “But the lower court’s decision treats our security as expendable whenever law enforcement can think of a reason to enter your home.”

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