The Biden administration filed an amicus brief in support of the police in a case before the Supreme Court, arguing that police officers should be allowed to enter homes without a warrant and seize someone’s firearms under the “caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment and — in a break with progressives — that police should be given qualified immunity if they conduct an unreasonable search and seizure under this circumstance.
On March 24, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Caniglia v. Strom, a case involving police officers entering a citizen’s home and seizing his guns without a warrant.
The facts of the case are as follows: In August 2015, Edward Caniglia and his wife got into a heated argument. Caniglia went to the bedroom and brought out an unloaded handgun, which he placed on the table and told his wife to “shoot me and get me out of my misery.” Caniglia’s wife then left the house and spent the night at a hotel. The next day she called the home, but there was no answer, prompting her to call the police and ask for a wellness check.
When police officers spoke to Caniglia, they reported that he “seemed normal” and “calm for the most part.” He stated that he would “never commit suicide,” but officers had not asked him about suicide, so they encouraged him to go to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. The officers admit they “did not consult any specific psychological or psychiatric criteria” nor any medical professionals.
Caniglia initially refused to go to the hospital until the officers promised they would not seize his guns. However, after Caniglia left, the officers told his wife he had agreed to a seizure of his guns, getting her to show them where the guns were stored. Caniglia was eventually discharged from the hospital, but the police refused to return his guns.
Caniglia sued the officers, saying that they violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches and seizures. Only after filing suit did Caniglia receive his guns back.
A federal district court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the police, finding that the officers’ actions fell under the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment. The community caretaking exception, which is not listed in the Constitution, was created in 1973 in the case of Cady v. Dombrowski in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was reasonable to allow cops to take custody of a vehicle on the roadway, search the vehicle without a warrant, and seize any weapons inside as a public safety precaution. The First Circuit did admit that “the doctrine’s reach outside the motor vehicle context is ill-defined.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an amicus brief in support of the officers and argued that officers should be able to enter a home without a warrant. DOJ attorney Morgan Ratner said,
“Although there have been a lot of questions this morning about whether this is emergency aid or exigent circumstances or community caretaking or something else, the label you give it is not nearly as important as the principle. And the key principle is if someone is at risk of serious harm and it’s reasonable for officials to intervene now, that is enough.”
Caniglia’s attorneys argued, “Extending the community caretaking exception to homes would be anathema to the Fourth Amendment,” stating that it “would grant police a blank check to intrude upon the home.”
Joshua Windham, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff, agreed, saying,
“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. 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.”
The DOJ also argued that if the officers were found to have violated Caniglia’s rights they should receive qualified immunity, breaking with progressives. “If any doubt exists about the reasonableness of the respondent officers’ actions,” the DOJ wrote, “this Court should affirm on the alternative ground that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity.”
“No such clearly established law forbade the respondent officers from entering petitioner’s residence to address a suicide threat that, under all the circumstances, was specific, credible, and reasonably impending. Indeed, as noted, every court of appeals to have evaluated the constitutionality of similar police action has determined that the action does not violate the Fourth Amendment.”
Qualified immunity “shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.” This makes it very difficult for government officials to be held liable for violations of rights.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., introduced a bill to end qualified immunity, saying,
“For too long [qualified immunity] has shielded law enforcement from accountability and denied recourse for the countless families robbed of their loved ones…. There can be no justice without healing and accountability, and there can be no true accountability with qualified immunity.”
That bill, H.R., 1280, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed along party lines in the House on March 4. It was endorsed by the Biden administration.
While it is unusual for the Biden administration to break with progressives, the reason likely rests with the administration’s anti-gun stance. In this scenario, Caniglia, who had no criminal record and no history of violence, seemed normal to officers, yet they essentially tricked him into leaving his home so they could enter his home and take his guns, even going so far as to mislead his wife.
The district court and the First Circuit’s rulings that allow police to enter a person’s home without a warrant and seize their guns under the auspices of “caretaking” sets a remarkably dangerous precedent. This represents the same basic principle of “red flag” laws. If someone claims that a person is a threat to themselves or others, police may enter their home and seize their guns. If this action is allowed to stand, the government may enter a person’s home and take their property, citing “community caretaking” as the reason, whether that reason is credible or not.
The administration’s support for qualified immunity in this situation means that when an officer is found to have violated a citizen’s rights, the citizen has little if any recourse.