A RARE unanimous ruling by
the U.S. Supreme Court has
closed what some analysts are calling a “loophole” in the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” by banning the seizure of firearms from a private residence without a warrant. It’s telling that all nine justices were united in calling out such warrantless seizures as unconstitutional.
Writing for the court in Caniglia v. Strom, Justice Clarence Thomas affirmed that the “very core” of the Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Unreasonable is this case defined as the seizure of a man’s guns without a court-approved warrant—even though done with benign intent as a form of “community caretaking.”
According to court documents, the case involved Rhode Island resident Edward Caniglia and what he later claimed was a non-serious plea for his wife “to shoot [him] now and get it over with” after he placed a non-loaded firearm on their dining room table during a marital argument. There was no domestic violence or other crime committed, although the wife left the family home for the night and called police to escort her back the next day when her husband did not answer his phone.
The police convinced Caniglia (who insisted that he was not suicidal) to go for a psychiatric evaluation at the local hospital after they allegedly promised not to take his firearms. But while Caniglia was gone, they seized his two handguns without a warrant.
Noting that the Fourth Amendment allows some “unwelcome intrusions” on private property—including searches and seizures based on valid warrants, or when there is a need to “render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury,” Justice Thomas wrote that police officers can still approach a private residence and knock on the door to ascertain if everyone inside is OK. But they can’t enter a home and seize property without a warrant.
Domestic disputes are one of the most dangerous interactions between police officers and citizens themselves, many of whom have been killed or wounded in such emotionally-charged situations. Requiring police to stop and obtain a warrant before they enter a private home and seize weapons allows a “cooling off” period for both sides.
In his concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that the ruling also “implicates another body of law … the so-called ‘red flag’ laws that some States are now enacting.”
Those states include Virginia, which passed a red-flag law last year that allows police to seize a person’s firearms preemptively based entirely on another individual’s testimony that they pose a danger to themselves or others even if no crime has been committed, which puts many of these laws on thin constitutional ice.
However, unlike the Rhode Island case, the Virginia law requires that a warrant be issued by a judge or magistrate before any guns are seized, and such emergency risk orders can remain in force for only two weeks before the gun owner must be granted a hearing in circuit court.
Alito said that certain “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.” But he left the door wide open for future challenges.
The ruling also does not address the question of whether the police can lawfully enter a private home without a warrant to do a “welfare check” on elderly or incapacitated individuals, as is customary in many jurisdictions.
“Our current precedents do not address situations like this,” Alito also pointed out. “We have held that the police may enter a home without a warrant when there are ‘exigent circumstances,’ but circumstances are exigent only when there is not enough time to get a warrant, and warrants are not typically granted for the purpose of checking on a person’s medical condition. In the meantime, courts may be required to grapple with the basic Fourth Amendment question of reasonableness.”
As will all 50 state legislatures.