Biden admin calls on SCOTUS to let police enter homes, confiscate guns without a warrant
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case about whether law enforcement officers can enter people’s home and confiscate guns without a warrant, Forbes reported.
This comes in the wake of two mass shootings in the past eight days that have renewed the gun control debate, which has been relatively dormant throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Caniglia v. Strom, Forbes senior contributor Nick Sibilla wrote, is a case that could have wide-ranging consequences for policing, due process, mental health, as well as the Fourth Amendment. Notably, as part of the case, the Biden administration and attorneys general from nine states are calling on the court to uphold warrantless gun confiscation.
The case all started with an elderly couple’s dispute over a coffee mug in August 2015.
To summarize the story, an argument led to the husband—Edward Caniglia—grabbing a handgun, putting it on the kitchen table, and telling his wife Kim: “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?” This led to more arguing and eventually to Mrs. Caniglia spending the night in a motel. She phoned her home the next day but got no answer, which prompted her to call the police in Cranston, Rhode Island and ask them to conduct a “well check” on her husband and to escort her home.
The police, however, did not conduct the check according to the books. They then insisted that Mr. Caniglia go to the hospital for an evaluation, though Mr. Caniglia refused, emphasizing that his mental health wasn’t their business. Mr. Caniglia agreed only after police promised—albeit falsely—they would not confiscate his guns while he was away.
Furthermore, officers then told Mrs. Caniglia that her husband had consented to the seizure, and she led them to the two handguns they owned, which were then seized. Despite Mr. Caniglia being immediately discharged from the hospital, police only gave back the firearms after he filed a civil rights case against them.
Significantly, when police confiscated the handguns, they did not allege it was to prevent imminent danger. Rather, they argued their actions were a manner of “community caretaking,” a slim exception to the warrant requirement in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
As Sibilla explained, the community caretaking exception was initially created by the Supreme Court about half a century ago and was designed for cases involving impounded cars and highway safety, because police are often called to car accidents to remove nuisances like inoperable vehicles on public roads.
Both a district and appellate court upheld the confiscations as “reasonable” under the community caretaking exception. The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals acknowledged that “the doctrine’s reach outside the motor vehicle context is ill-defined.” Regardless, the court moved to extend that doctrine to cover private homes, ruling that the officers “did not exceed the proper province of their community caretaking responsibilities.”
Moreover, the court mentioned that a police officer “must act as a master of all emergencies, who is ‘expected to…provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety.’” By allowing law enforcement to act without a warrant, the community caretaking exception is “designed to give police elbow room to take appropriate action,” the court added.
Attorneys for Caniglia in their opening brief for the Supreme Court argued that “extending the community caretaking exception to homes would be anathema to the Fourth Amendment” because it “would grant police a blank check to intrude upon the home.”
On the other hand, the Biden administration in its first amicus brief for the Supreme Court disregarded these worries and urged the court to uphold the First Circuit’s ruling. Saying “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness,’” the Department of Justice (DOJ) contended that warrants should not be “presumptively required when a government official’s action is objectively grounded in a non-investigatory public interest, such as health or safety.”
“The ultimate question in this case,” its brief stated, “is therefore not whether the respondent officers’ actions fit within some narrow warrant exception […] but instead whether those actions were reasonable,” actions the DOJ felt were “justified” in Caniglia’s case.
Want to learn more about this story? Then read the full original Forbes story here.
You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.