Washington D.C. – In a 9-0 ruling, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police cannot seize a firearm from a home without a warrant. The unprecedented ruling stemmed from a case in Rhode Island that entered a home to search for a gun that belonged to a man who had agreed to seek a mental health evaluation. Police claimed that they were operating under the caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment.
The case began when Edward Caniglia of Cranston (RI) got into an argument with his wife, retrieved a handgun from the bedroom and put it on the dining room table, asking her to shoot him as reported by NBC News.
Caniglia’s wife left the scene and later asked the police to conduct a welfare check on her husband. Caniglia agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation but only after the police said that they would not confiscate his firearms. After he was transported to the hospital, police entered the home anyway, found two handguns and confiscated the weapons.
Caniglia sued, arguing that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching the house without a warrant. The lower courts sided with law enforcement and the appeal made it’s way to the Supreme Court.
Monday’s Supreme Court ruling said the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment is a narrow one, stemming from a 1973 decision that said police could search an impounded car for an unsecured firearm.
Police officers are called upon to perform many civic tasks beyond their normal law enforcement duties, but that recognition is not “an open-ended license to perform them anywhere,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the court.
“What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes.”
Even so, said Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, “a warrant to enter a home is not required … when there is a need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.”
Justice Samuel Alito expressed similar caution about applying Monday’s ruling too broadly.
“Today, more than ever, many people, including many elderly persons, live alone,” he wrote. Someone who was seriously ill might regard her home as her castle, “but it is doubtful that she would have wanted it to be the place where she died alone and in agony.”