Yesterday, the internet was ablaze with articles on the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Caniglia v. Strom, et al., docket no. 20-157, and people cheering that the U.S. Supreme Court announced the death knell not only to warrantless searches of one’s home and seizure of one’s firearms but also to red flag laws. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth and it is telling that none of the articles I have seen actually link to the decision (and three concurring opinions) or paste important parts of the decision and concurring opinions. So let’s actually review what Justice Thomas wrote for the Opinion of the Court and what the three Concurring Opinions declare.
The question presented was quite simple: “whether Cady’s acknowledgment of these “caretaking” duties creates a standalone doctrine that justifies warrant-less searches and seizures in the home?”
After identifying the issue presented, Justice Thomas swiftly reviews the background of the case.
During an argument with his wife at their Rhode Island home, Edward Caniglia (petitioner) retrieved a handgun from the bedroom, put it on the dining room table, and asked his wife to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” She declined, and instead left to spend the night at a hotel. The next morning, when petitioner’s wife discovered that she could not reach him by telephone, she called the police (respondents) to request a welfare check.
Respondents accompanied petitioner’s wife to the home, where they encountered petitioner on the porch. Petitioner spoke with respondents and confirmed his wife’s account of the argument, but denied that he was suicidal. Respondents, however, thought that petitioner posed a risk to himself or others. They called an ambulance, and petitioner agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation—but only after respondents allegedly promised not to confiscate his firearms. Once the ambulance had taken petitioner away, however, respondents seized the weapons. Guided by petitioner’s wife—whom they allegedly misinformed about his wishes—respondents entered the home and took two handguns.
Petitioner sued, claiming that respondents violated theFourth Amendment when they entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant.
Immediately thereafter, as Justice Thomas begins to review the decisions by the district court and First Circuit Court of Appeals, anyone who studies the law should’ve seen the writing on the wall, when Justice Thomas declares:
Accordingly, the First Circuit saw no need to consider whether anyone had consented to respondents’ actions; whether these actions were justified by “exigent circumstances”; or whether any state law permitted this kind of mental-health intervention.
As Justice Thomas goes on to review the Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and applicability of the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment that was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973)(query, since when can a rule or unlisted exception to any constitutional amendment, usurp that constitutional amendment?…but I digress), it becomes apparent that the Court intends to issue an *extremely* limited opinion. In fact, it goes on to declare that:
The decision below assumed that respondents lacked a warrant or consent, and it expressly disclaimed the possibility that they were reacting to a crime. The court also declined to consider whether any recognized exigent circumstances were present because respondents had forfeited the point
This should’ve been a blinking neon sign to anyone reading the decision that it was not going to be groundbreaking, would be extremely limited to the facts of this particular case, and that Mr. Caniglia has a LONG road ahead of him to establish a civil rights violation, as the Court provided the defendants with a roadmap as to how, in its opinion, to possibly and constitutionally evade liability. (Query, why did our Founding Fathers include an amendment process, if the Bill of Rights could simply be amended, modified, or otherwise changed by the whim of the Judiciary? Where exactly does the Judiciary have the power to add exceptions and exclusions to the Bill of Rights? Isn’t it only We The People that have that right, through the amendment process? But again, I digress…)
After reviewing additional jurisprudence, the Court vacates the judgment below and remands the case for further proceedings on the basis that the Cady decision only addressed the reasonableness of a search of a car without a warrant under the “community caretaking” exception and never condoned expanding it to the home.
We then have Chief Justice Robert’s short and sweet concurring opinion, which is joined by Justice Breyer. It simply declares:
Fifteen years ago, this Court unanimously recognized that “[t]he role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties.” Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398, 406 (2006). A warrant to enter a home is not required, we explained, when there is a “need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.” Id., at 403; see also Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U. S. 45, 49 (2009) (per curiam) (warrantless entry justified where “there was an objectively reasonable basis for believing that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Nothing in today’s opinion is to the contrary, and I join it on that basis.
Thus, we once again see a roadmap being provided for what the Court deems to be a constitutional basis for the defendants to assert in relation to their actions.
We then have Justice Alito’s concurring opinion, which is longer than Justice Thomas’ Opinion of the Court and which sets out the roadmap for the defendants with particularity and explains just how limited of an opinion the Court is actually issuing.
Concerningly, Justice Alito declares, among other things:
While there is no overarching “community caretaking”doctrine, it does not follow that all searches and seizures conducted for non-law-enforcement purposes must be analyzed under precisely the same Fourth Amendment rules developed in criminal cases. Those rules may or may not be appropriate for use in various non-criminal-law-enforcement contexts. We do not decide that issue today…
Assuming that petitioner did not voluntarily consent to go with the officers fora psychological assessment, he was seized and thus subjected to a serious deprivation of liberty. But was this warrantless seizure “reasonable”? We have addressed the standards required by due process for involuntary commitment to a mental treatment facility, see Addington v. Texas, 441 U. S. 418, 427 (1979); see also O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U. S. 563, 574–576 (1975); Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U. S. 71, 75–77, 83 (1992), 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. Every State has laws allowing emergency seizures for psychiatric treatment, observation, or stabilization, but these laws vary in many respects, including the categories of persons who may request the emergency action, the reasons that can justify the action, the necessity of a judicial proceeding, and the nature of the proceeding…
This case also implicates another body of law that petitioner glossed over: the so-called “red flag” laws that some States are now enacting. These laws enable the police to seize guns pursuant to a court order to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons. See, e.g., Cal. Penal Code Ann. §§18125–18148 (West Cum.Supp. 2021); Fla. Stat. §790.401(4) (Cum. Supp. 2021); Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 140, §131T (2021). They typically specify the standard that must be met and the procedures that must be followed before firearms may be seized. 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
One additional category of cases should be noted: those involving warrantless, nonconsensual searches of a home for the purpose of ascertaining whether a resident is in urgent need of medical attention and cannot summon help.At oral argument, THE CHIEF JUSTICE posed a question that highlighted this problem. He imagined a situation in which neighbors of an elderly woman call the police and express concern because the woman had agreed to come over for dinner at 6 p.m., but by 8 p.m., had not appeared or called even though she was never late for anything. The woman had not been seen leaving her home, and she wasnot answering the phone. Nor could the neighbors reach her relatives by phone. If the police entered the home without a warrant to see if she needed help, would that violate the Fourth Amendment? Tr. of Oral Arg. 6–8.
Petitioner’s answer was that it would. Indeed, he argued,even if 24 hours went by, the police still could not lawfully enter without a warrant. If the situation remained unchanged for several days, he suggested, the police might be able to enter after obtaining “a warrant for a missing person.” Id., at 9. THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s question concerns an important real-world problem. Today, more than ever, many people,including many elderly persons, live alone.3 Many elderly men and women fall in their homes, or become incapacitated for other reasons, and unfortunately, there are many cases in which such persons cannot call for assistance. In those cases, the chances for a good recovery may fade with each passing hour. So in THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s imaginary case, if the elderly woman was seriously hurt or sick and the police heeded petitioner’s suggestion about what the Fourth Amendment demands, there is a fair chance she would not be found alive. This imaginary woman may have regarded her house as her castle, but it is doubtful that she would have wanted it to be the place where she died alone and in agony.
Our current precedents do not address situations like this. We have held that the police may enter a home without a warrant when there are “exigent circumstances.” Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 590 (1980). But circumstances are exigent only when there is not enough time to get a warrant, see Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U. S. 141, 149 (2013); Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U. S. 499, 509 (1978), and warrants are not typically granted for the purpose of checking on a person’s medical condition. Perhaps States should institute procedures for the issuance of such warrants, but in the meantime, courts may be required to grapple with the basic Fourth Amendment question of reasonableness.
If these statements don’t cause chills down your spine in relation to the last nails of the coffin being hammered down in relation to the Fourth Amendment, I’m not sure what will…
And lastly is Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion, which declares:
I write separately to underscore and elaborate on THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s point that the Court’s decision does not prevent police officers from taking reasonable steps to assist those who are inside a home and in need of aid. See ante, at 1 (ROBERTS, C. J., concurring). For example, as I will explain, police officers may enter a home without a warrant in circumstances where they are reasonably trying to prevent a potential suicide or to help an elderly person who has been out of contact and may have fallen and suffered a serious injury…
But drawing on common-law analogies and a commonsense appraisal of what is “reasonable,” the Court has recognized various situations where a warrant is not required. For example, the exigent circumstances doctrine allows officers to enter a home without a warrant in certain situations, including: to fight a fire and investigate its cause; to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence; to engage in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon or prevent a suspect’s escape; to address a threat to the safety of law enforcement officers or the general public; to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant; or to protect an occupant who is threatened with serious injury…
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.
A few (non-exhaustive) examples illustrate the point.
Suppose that a woman calls a healthcare hotline or 911and says that she is contemplating suicide, that she has firearms in her home, and that she might as well die. The operator alerts the police, and two officers respond by driving to the woman’s home. They knock on the door but do not receive a response. May the officers enter the home? Of course.
The exigent circumstances doctrine applies because the officers have an “objectively reasonable basis” for believing that an occupant is “seriously injured or threatened with such injury.” Id., at 400, 403; cf. Sheehan, 575 U. S., at 612 (officers could enter the room of a mentally ill person who had locked herself inside with a knife). After all, a suicidal individual in such a scenario could kill herself at any moment. The Fourth Amendment does not require officers to stand idly outside as the suicide takes place.
Consider another example. Suppose that an elderly man is uncharacteristically absent from Sunday church services and repeatedly fails to answer his phone throughout the day and night. A concerned relative calls the police and asks the officers to perform a wellness check. Two officers drive to the man’s home. They knock but receive no response. May the officers enter the home? Of course.
Again, the officers have an “objectively reasonable basis”for believing that an occupant is “seriously injured or threatened with such injury.” Brigham City, 547 U. S., at 400, 403. Among other possibilities, the elderly man may have fallen and hurt himself, a common cause of death or serious injury for older individuals. The Fourth Amendment does not prevent the officers from entering the home and checking on the man’s well-being.
To be sure, courts, police departments, and police officers alike must take care that officers’ actions in those kinds of cases are reasonable under the circumstances. But both of those examples and others as well, such as cases involving unattended young children inside a home, illustrate the kinds of warrantless entries that are perfectly constitutional under the exigent circumstances doctrine, in my view.
To put it succinctly, our Founding Father’s are rolling over in the graves at the usurpation not only of our Rights but by the Judiciary’s death-grip control over those exact Rights. In stead of lauding this decision, everyone valuing their Rights should be horrified at what additional “exceptions” and application of existing “exceptions” the Court will condone in violation of our Rights.
If you or someone you know has had their constitutional or statutory rights violated, including in relation to seizure of your firearms, contact Firearms Industry Consulting Group today to discuss YOUR rights and legal options
Firearms Industry Consulting Group® (FICG®) is a registered trademark and division of Civil Rights Defense Firm, P.C., with rights and permissions granted to Prince Law Offices, P.C. to use in this article.
I handle cases at the Federal and State level for both FFLs and individuals. At the federal and state levels for individuals, I actively defend the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution and Section 21 of the PA Constitution, as well as, help individuals with:
– License to Carry Firearms Denials;
– Challenges to Erroneous PICS Denials;
– Relief from Firearms Disabilities;
– Estate Planning Advice;
– Gun/NFA Trusts; and
– 42 USC 1983 Actions for Deprivation of Civil Rights
At both the state and federal levels, I represent FFLs and SOTs throughout Pennsylvania and the US regarding:
– ATF Compliance Inspections;
– Warning Letters and Hearings;
– FFL Revocations;
– Corporate Structure Advice
– Indoor/Outdoor Range Implementation; and
– Forfeiture Proceedings
In following my love for firearms and firearms law, I have taught several Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars on Firearms in Estates and Trusts and Firearms Law 101 for several Bar Associations, including Berks, Cumberland, and Dauphin Counties. I also planned and taught several Firearms in Estates CLE classes for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute (PBI).
While at Widener Law School, I was a member of the Widener Law Journal. I wrote an article on the Inaccuracy of the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record (NFRTR). I also had an article published on Fee Disputes in Workers Compensation cases in the Widener Law Journal, Volume 18, No. 2.
You can often find me posting on several internet forums, including Subguns, Uzitalk, AR15, and PAFOA. I also hold PA Firearms Law classes for local ranges to inform the public on the firearm laws of the Commonwealth.
Following in my father’s footsteps, I am also a Board member for the Pottstown Police Athletic League (PAL).
View all posts by Joshua Prince, Esq.