While most of the headlines about the Supreme Court today are focused on the decision to accept a case dealing with a Mississippi law restricting most abortions after fifteen weeks, today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co takes a closer look at another decision announced by the Court today; an unanimous opinion handed down in a Fourth Amendment case that involved the warrantless seizure of a Rhode Island man’s firearms.
All nine justices agreed that the Cranston, Rhode Island police department’s seizure of Edward Caniglia’s firearms violated his Fourth Amendment rights, with Justice Clarence Thomas penning the majority opinion, with several other justices writing their own concurring opinions that elaborate on their own thinking. The SCOTUS decision overturned both the district court and First Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled that Caniglia had his guns seized under a “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment established in a case called Cady v Dombrowski .
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.
The case started with an argument between Edward Caniglia and his wife several years ago. As the couple were arguing, Caniglia retrieved a handgun from the bedroom, put it on the dining room table, and asked his wife to just go ahead and shoot him already. Instead, she left the home and spent the night at a hotel. The next morning, she tried to call the house but got no answer, so she then called the police department and asked them to perform a welfare check on Caniglia.
Respondents accompanied petitioner’s wife to the home, where they encountered petitioner on the porch. Petitioner spoke with respondents and confirmed his wife’s account of the argument, but denied that he was suicidal. Respondents, however, thought that petitioner posed a risk to himself or others. They called an ambulance, and petitioner agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation— but only after respondents allegedly promised not to confiscate his firearms. Once the ambulance had taken petitioner away, however, respondents seized the weapons. Guided by petitioner’s wife—whom they allegedly misinformed about his wishes—respondents entered the home and took two handguns.
The doctors who took a look at Caniglia found that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others, but when he returned home he found his guns had been taken, and the Cranston police refused to give them back, even though he had been accused of a crime (much less convicted) or been adjudicated as mentally defective.
In his concurrence agreeing that Caniglia’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, Justice Samuel Alito brought up the fact that the Court may one day hear a case dealing with another way that police are seizing firearms; red flag laws.
This case also implicates another body of law that petitioner glossed over: the so-called “red flag” laws that some States are now enacting. These laws enable the police to seize guns pursuant to a court order to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons. They typically specify the standard that must be met and the procedures that must be followed before firearms may be seized. Provisions of red flag laws may be challenged under the Fourth Amendment, and those cases may come before us. Our decision today does not address those issues.
What, if anything, can we read into Alito’s comments? On the one hand, Alito’s reference to specific standards that must be be met before guns can be seized could be read to suggest that Alito might vote to uphold red flag laws if a case does come before the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the standards themselves are what’s going to be called into question if that happens; does a hearing in which the gun owner isn’t even entitled to be present really uphold their right to be secure in their persons and property? Are due process rights of gun owners violated when red flag orders are issued? There are plenty of attorneys out there who say yes, like Florida attorney Kendra Parris.
“Rather than find clear and convincing evidence, [courts are] basically saying, ‘Better safe than sorry,’” Parris said.
Most red flag laws are vague on what constitutes a “significant danger,” which gives courts broad discretion to seize firearms, Parris said. And in some states, respondents are not guaranteed representation in court, since these are civil and not criminal matters.
Many defense lawyers say respondents fare much better with legal representation. Of Parris’ seven cases that have gone to a hearing, she has won five — which she said is a “vastly higher” success record than when someone represents themselves.
It’s encouraging to see the Supreme Court unanimously agree that Edward Caniglia’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when his firearms were seized without a warrant, but I suspect that a challenge to a state’s red flag laws would result in a much more divided opinion.
While this case didn’t directly involve a Second Amendment challenge, it’s also good to see that even the progressive wing of the Court concluded that the seizure of Caniglia’s legally-owned firearms infringed on his constitutional rights. It may not indicate a sea change from the liberal justices, but at least in this case they declined to treat the Second (and Fourth) Amendment as a second-class right.