May 18, 2021

Firearm Confiscation Checked by Supreme Court

The justices protected the Fourth and Second Amendments from so-called “community caretaking” laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court just issued a unanimous decision on a case that could have reverberating impact on the Fourth and Second Amendments. On Monday, all nine justices agreed to overturn a First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against Rhode Island resident Edward Caniglia, who contended that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when law enforcement officers who were administering a welfare check elected to search his home and confiscate his firearms without a warrant.

In 2015, Caniglia had an hours-long argument with his wife of 22 years, during which he put his unloaded handgun on a table and asked, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?” His wife then left the house and stayed in a motel overnight. The next morning she called police and requested a welfare check, saying she feared her husband was suicidal. When police arrived at the house, they spoke with Caniglia, who eventually agreed to go to the hospital for a mental health evaluation on the condition that the police would not seize his firearms. The officers agreed, but after Caniglia left for the hospital they entered his home and confiscated his two firearms anyway. They did so without obtaining a warrant, arguing that he represented a threat to himself and others.

Upon Caniglia’s return from the hospital that same day, after he was cleared of any mental health concerns, he discovered that his firearms had been seized. He contacted the police requesting their return. The police refused, citing a “community caretaking exception” as justification for both entering and searching his house and seizing his firearms. Caniglia subsequently sued, claiming a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.

In their ruling, the justices homed in on the “community caretaking” exemption to the Fourth Amendment, an exemption based upon the 1973 Cady v. Dombrowski ruling in which the Supreme Court said law enforcement can legally search a vehicle without a warrant for reasonable cause. Justice Clarence Thomas observed a significant difference: “What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.” Yet Thomas further asserted, “The First Circuit’s ‘community caretaking’ rule, however, goes beyond anything this Court has recognized.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh disputed the notion that the Court’s ruling in support of Fourth Amendment protections would jeopardize the ability of police to legally enter a home. “If someone is at risk of serious harm and it is reasonable for officers to intervene now, that is enough for the officers to enter,” Kavanaugh stated.

Also of significance from this decision are the unanswered questions surrounding the constitutionality of so-called “red flag” laws meant for gun confiscation. Clearly, Justice Samuel Alito sees this as an issue that the Court needs to address. “We have addressed the standards required by due process for involuntary commitment to a mental treatment facility but we have not addressed Fourth Amendment restrictions on seizures like the one that we must assume occurred here, i.e., a short-term seizure conducted for the purpose of ascertaining whether a person presents an imminent risk of suicide,” he wrote. “This case also implicates another body of law that petitioner glossed over: the so-called ‘red flag’ laws that some States are now enacting. … 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.”

SCOTUS’s decision was a win for upholding Americans’ Fourth Amendment and Second Amendment rights. While the issue of how best to prevent mentally unstable individuals from accessing firearms remains a significant challenge, yesterday’s ruling was a firm reminder that the definition of the term “mentally unstable” is debatable. That’s why lawmakers cannot run roughshod over constitutional rights in the name of protecting the community. Due process must be respected and maintained.

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