Biden Administration Tells Supreme Court Police Can Seize Guns in Homes Without a Warrant to Prevent Suicide

Biden Administration Tells Supreme Court Police Can Seize Guns in Homes Without a Warrant to Prevent Suicide
The Supreme Court in Washington on Nov. 5, 2020. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court seemed skeptical of government arguments that the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement should be expanded to allow police to seize guns without a warrant in a person’s home.

The case comes as President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats press for aggressive new restrictions on Second Amendment gun ownership rights, including controversial “red flag” laws, which allow gun seizures from law-abiding gun owners with limited due process, in the wake of highly publicized deadly mass shootings at a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket on March 22 and at Atlanta-area spas on March 16.

In the case at hand, the Biden administration argued for expanding government power, telling the Supreme Court that police should be allowed to enter homes without a warrant to seize handguns.

The case, Caniglia v. Strom, court file 20-157, is on appeal from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments on March 24 lasted 102 minutes, exceeding the allotted 60 minutes.

The community caretaking doctrine holds that police don’t always operate as law enforcement officials investigating wrongdoing, but sometimes as caretakers to prevent harm in emergency situations.

Police generally cannot conduct searches of private property without consent or a warrant.

In Cady v. Dombrowski (1973) the Supreme Court held that police may conduct warrantless searches related to “community caretaking functions,” but only for “vehicle accidents.” Since then, the principle has become “a catchall for a wide range of responsibilities that police officers must discharge aside from their criminal enforcement activities,” the 1st Circuit stated in the Caniglia case.

Edward Caniglia has no criminal history and no record of violence. He had been married to his wife for 22 years when, on Aug. 20, 2015, they had a disagreement inside their Cranston, Rhode Island, home.

The argument escalated. He produced an unloaded gun and said, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”

She then spent the night at a motel. She tried to reach him by telephone and became concerned when he didn’t pick up. She told police her husband might be suicidal and asked them to conduct a welfare check.

The police called the husband, whom they said “sounded fine.” He told police his “just shoot me” comment happened because he “couldn’t take it anymore.”

The husband went to a local hospital briefly after police assured him they wouldn’t take his two handguns. After he left, they seized his guns without a warrant, telling the wife his life and others could be in danger if they left the guns in the home.

“After the officers falsely represented to Mrs. Caniglia that Petitioner had consented, she led the officers to the guns,” Caniglia stated in a brief.

The couple and a lawyer asked the police to return the guns, and their requests were refused.

The husband sued, but the district and appeals courts allowed the search under the community caretaking exception. The husband argued in his Supreme Court brief that the exception shouldn’t be applied inside “the home–the most protected of all private spaces.”

During oral arguments, Department of Justice lawyer Morgan Ratner supported the city’s position, arguing that this case was “fundamentally different from most of the court’s other Fourth Amendment cases because the question is not act now or get a warrant first. It’s act now or not at all.”

There's no warrant process in many non-investigatory situations, from welfare checks on elderly residents to intervention in current suicide threats, she said.

“Although there have been a lot of questions this morning about whether this is emergency aid or exigent circumstances or community caretaking or something else, the label you give it is not nearly as important as the principle. And the key principle is if someone is at risk of serious harm and it’s reasonable for officials to intervene now, that is enough,” Ratner said.

The justices seemed to be searching for a legal test to cover Caniglia’s situation, posing a long series of hypothetical questions about what situations might justify police entering a home without a warrant.

Warrantless home entries are unreasonable in the absence of exigent circumstances, Caniglia's attorney, Shay Dvoretzky, told the court.

“The Fourth Amendment protects the home in a special way. ... A reasonable search requires a warrant unless there is consent or a true emergency,” Dvoretzky said.

The problem with the rule the other side proposes is it would allow police “to go into the home without a warrant in situations that would essentially blow up numerous other Fourth Amendment doctrines that this court has held are very important to protect the sanctity of the home.”

Justice Clarence Thomas asked if a police officer enters a home and finds someone unconscious on the floor, if that person could sue the police.

“If he goes in without an objective basis and just happens to have guessed correctly that she did need help, that would not absolve the officer of liability,” Dvoretzky said.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh quipped that developing legal tests to cover various situations was “great,” but said in the real world, police have to make split-second decisions.

“Every single day on average there are 65 suicides” by gunshot, and police “can help prevent that,” he said, adding that Dvoretzky’s position would make police back away from suicide checks.

The lawyer replied, “If they’ve been told that the person is suicidal, they cannot get in touch with the person, they cannot get in touch with a mental health professional, I think in that situation they could go in.”

Marc DeSisto, attorney for Cranston, said: “An absolute prohibition against warrantless entry is wrong.

“Community caretaking in the home without a warrant should be allowed when it is objectively reasonable to do so.”

Justice Samuel Alito told DeSisto that people are concerned that the caretaking exception “doesn’t seem to have any clear boundaries. And when you tell us that it can include getting a cat down from a tree, that fortifies that concern.”

The lawyer replied that “the touchstone” of the Fourth Amendment is “reasonableness.”

“The text and the meaning and the spirit of the Fourth Amendment is not offended by caretaking activity to the most vulnerable at the most vulnerable times, so long as the intrusions are reasonable when weighed against the privacy interest," DeSisto said.

“Our nation doesn’t abandon those in need. Police officers cannot turn their backs and walk away.”