The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a resounding victory this week for gun rights advocates by striking down a lower court decision that allowed police in Rhode Island to seize a man’s firearms without a warrant or any other court order.
“The Supreme Court today smacked down the hopes of gun grabbers across the nation. The Michael Bloombergs of the world would have loved to see the Supreme Court grant police the authority to confiscate firearms without a warrant,” said Erich Pratt, Senior Vice President of Gun Owners of America (GOA). “But the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Fourth Amendment protections in the Bill of Rights protect gun owners from such invasions into their homes.”
In its unanimous ruling, the Court determined that a doctrine known as the “community caretaker function” does not allow law enforcement to enter a residence and seize property without a warrant. The doctrine was instituted by the U.S. Supreme Court as an exception to the Fourth Amendment, but the Court ruled in this case that it only applies to motor vehicles or in order to render aid.
The case stemmed from an incident in which a man named Edward Caniglia put a handgun on a table and told his wife to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” The woman declined and spent the night at a hotel. The next morning, police officers accompanied the woman to her home and found Caniglia on his porch.
Caniglia confirmed that he had put the handgun on the table but denied he was suicidal. He eventually submitted to be taken to a hospital for a psychological evaluation but only after police allegedly promised not to take his firearms. After he entered the ambulance, officers entered his home, accompanied by Caniglia’s wife, and seized his firearms.
Caniglia sued, but the First Circuit Court upheld the seizure using a doctrine called “community caretaking.” The First Circuit cherry picked this idea from a 1973 case called Cady v. Dombrowski, in which the Supreme Court allowed police officers to search an impounded vehicle without a warrant because it involved the completion of a non-criminal law-enforcement duty.
However, writing for the unanimous court, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out that Cady explicitly distinguished between homes and motor vehicles.
“What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes. Cady acknowledged as much, and this Court has repeatedly ‘declined to expand the scope of . . . exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home,’” Thomas said. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.”
All the justices voted to strike down the lower court ruling, but Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush appointee, clarified in a concurring opinion that the ruling does not speak to the legality of red flag laws. “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,” he said.