It is rare to see the Supreme Court unanimously rule on anything, but especially something having to do with firearms. But that’s just what happened in May when the SCOTUS overturned a 1st Circuit Court ruling in Caniglia v. Strom. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) that police illegally seized a Rhode Island man’s firearms in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.
Background: In 2015, Edward A. Caniglia (“Caniglia”) was at home with his wife, Kim Caniglia (“Mrs. Caniglia”), at their residence in Cranston, Rhode Island. Caniglia had an argument with Mrs. Caniglia that led to him offering her one of his unloaded guns in an appeal to “put him out of his misery.” She declined, but then Mrs. Caniglia left Caniglia to sleep in a nearby hotel overnight. When Mrs. Caniglia returned, she called the police, requesting to have her husband undergo a wellness check. Caniglia agreed to undergo the psychiatric evaluation — but only after the officers agreed they would not take his guns. However, the Cranston police deceived Caniglia.
The police would take Edward Caniglia’s guns while he was away and even lied to Mrs. Caniglia, claiming that Caniglia himself had consented to the confiscation. Caniglia would be released from the hospital almost immediately because there was nothing wrong with him other than, perhaps, having a vexatious wife. But his firearms were already gone, and he had to file a civil rights lawsuit against the department to get them back.
Both a federal court and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals stated the police were well within their rights to take Caniglia’s guns under a 1973 “community caretaking exception,” which was established in the Cady v. Dombrowski case. In Cady, an officer was allowed to take a gun out of an impounded car without a warrant under the police’s “community caretaking” power.
This was a Fourth Amendment case, not a Second Amendment case, but having firearms involved is still important. The police didn’t lie to the Caniglias so the cops could seize Caniglia’s cupcakes, or a sofa, or lawn equipment. Had this decision stood, it would have been possible that the “community caretaking” excuse would be used against law-abiding gun owners who loudly and publicly express unpopular political opinions — such as “shall not be infringed,” for example.
Another example: Justice Samuel Alito noted in a concurring opinion that some of the principles of Caniglia’s case could apply to rulings on red-flag laws, which allow police to seize guns owned by individuals deemed dangerous to themselves or others. “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 wrote.
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