On Monday the nation’s highest court unanimously ruled that the “community caretaking” exemption does not extend to warrantless searches and seizures of a person’s firearms inside their home.
Edward Caniglia and his wife had a heated argument one August night in 2015. Caniglia at one point brandished an unloaded pistol and exasperatingly told his wife to “shoot me and get me out of my misery.”
His wife spent the night at a hotel, but when she called the next day, there was no answer. She became concerned and asked police to check on him. Officers reported that Caniglia was calm, yet they urged him to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, promising that they would not take his guns while he was gone.
During the time he was away, the officers told his wife that he was a danger to himself and others and that he had agreed to a seizure of his weapons. His wife led them to the guns and the officers took them.
Caniglia said that when he got to the hospital, the staff “really didn’t know why I was there.” When Caniglia returned a few hours later, he demanded his weapons be returned, but the officers refused. “I immediately felt like it was a miscarriage of justice. … If they can come and do this with these firearms, when can they take away my car because I ran a stop sign? It seemed arbitrary,” he said.
Caniglia filed a lawsuit which reached the First Circuit Court of Appeals, but the court ruled the officers had acted within the scope of the “community caretaking” exemption that originated from Cady v. Dombrowski, a 1973 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that the police can search an impounded vehicle without a warrant so long as it was done in a “reasonable manner.”
The Supreme Court agreed to hear Caniglia v. Strom to determine whether the “community caretaking” precedent could be extended to a warrantless search of someone’s home. The Biden administration filed an amicus brief in support of the officers, arguing also that if the police were found to have acted inappropriately, they should receive qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court saw the case quite differently. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote,
“Neither the holding nor logic of Cady justifies such warrantless searches and seizures in the home. Cady held that a warrantless search of an impounded vehicle for an unsecured firearm did not violate the Fourth Amendment. 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. The very core of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee is the right of a person to retreat into his or her home and ‘there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’ A recognition of the existence of ‘community caretaking’ tasks, like rendering aid to motorists in disabled vehicles, is not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”
“Cady’s unmistakable distinction between vehicles and homes also places into proper context its reference to ‘community caretaking.’ This quote comes from a portion of the opinion explaining that the ‘frequency with which . . . vehicle[s] can become disabled or involved in . . . accident[s] on public highways’ often requires police to perform noncriminal ‘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 not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”
Caniglia, who isn’t seeking damages beyond his legal expenses, said, “None of this has been anti-police but anti- their reactions that day. It was a little bit out of hand.” The 70-year-old Rhode Islander doesn’t consider himself a gun rights advocate or NRA supporter.
Even the ACLU supported Caniglia, saying, “The Fourth Amendment has always served as an important barrier to police intrusion into the home, and we are very pleased that the Court reaffirmed this fundamental principle.”
While it is encouraging that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Caniglia’s favor, it raises serious concerns about how a seemingly straightforward case made it to the Court in the first place. It is doubly concerning considering the Biden administration’s opposition to Caniglia’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The Biden administration likely supported the police in this case because they hope for the case would provide cover for the adoption of “red flag” laws and other policies intended to seize firearms without a warrant. This case raises real questions about the constitutionality of red flag laws in which people are able to report that a gun owner is a threat to others, enabling police to legally respond to the home without a warrant and seize the person’s guns.
It is yet another example that the Biden administration is more concerned with its Big Government political agenda than with the liberty of Americans. Fortunately, the Supreme Court, in a rare 9-0 decision, reminded Biden and his staff that we do still have a Constitution.