SCOTUS Accepts Case Dealing With Warrantless Gun Seizures

It’s not a case that specifically deals with the right to keep and bear arms, but the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the seizure of a Rhode Island man’s lawfully owned firearms by police back in 2015. The case, known as Caniglia v. Strom, could serve as a vehicle for the Court to expound on the right to keep and bear arms, though the main question that the justices will have to answer instead revolves around our Fourth Amendment right to be secure in our persons and property against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The facts of the case involve the warrantless seizure of several firearms from the home of Edward Caniglia after an argument with his wife. During the argument, Caniglia dramatically placed an unloaded pistol on a table in front of his wife and proclaimed, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery.”

Instead of taking Caniglia up on his obvious attempt at melodrama, Caniglia’s wife left the house. When Edward didn’t answer a phone call from her the next day, however, she asked police to perform a wellness check on her husband.

They found that Caniglia was just fine, and he explained to police what had happened. Even though the officers said he “seemed normal,” they still told him they were going to take him to the local hospital to get evaluated. The police specifically told Caniglia that they would not take his two handguns if he voluntarily went with them, so he did. He was checked out, pronounced no danger to himself or others, billed $1,000 for the privilege of being told what he already knew, and was sent home, only to discover that police had in fact taken the two guns from the home. Not only that, they did so without a warrant.

Edward Caniglia’s been trying to get his guns back from the Cranston, Rhode Island police department ever since. Tomorrow, the justices will consider the arguments of Caniglia’s attorneys and the defense attorneys for the Cranston police department. The defendants maintain that an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures applies in the search of Caniglia’s home, though even the First Circuit Court of Appeals realized it was treading in uncharted waters when they agreed with the defense.

We’re getting into the legal weeds here, but in essence the Court is being asked to decide if a “community caretaker” exception to the Fourth Amendment applies in this case.

The Supreme Court had recognized the exception in a 1973 case, Cady v. Dombrowski, in which police searched the trunk of a car that had been towed after an accident.

“In the decades since Cady, however, the so-called ‘community caretaking’ exception has taken on a life of its own,” the cert petition said. “Courts across the country are deeply divided about whether the ‘community caretaking’ exception can justify a warrantless intrusion into a home. There is at least a 4 to 3 split on that question among the federal courts of appeals. State courts are similarly divided.”

The cert petition asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and rule that the community caretaking exception can’t be used to justify a warrantless search of a home.

While Caniglia doesn’t directly implicate the Second Amendment in its cert petition, this will be a hugely important Fourth Amendment case, and it could serve as a powerful check on the powers of government if the Court rules that the seizure of firearms from someone they believe may pose a threat to themselves or others doesn’t take precedence over the individual citizen’s right to privacy and security in their own home.

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