The Supreme Court bans most warrantless gun seizures from homes

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a decision holding that police may not seize guns from a person’s home without a valid warrant or proof that there is an emergency. Justice Clarence Thomas’s decision is a masterpiece of clarity and brevity, as well as a much-deserved scolding to a careless and cavalier First Circuit court. In addition, the legal principle was so obvious that the Court reached its decision unanimously. Monday was a good day for constitutional principles and the rule of law in America.

The facts of Caniglia v. Strom are simple: During a fight with his wife, Petitioner Edward Caniglia grabbed his handgun, put it on the table, and said, “Shoot me now and get it over with.” Instead, his wife headed for a hotel. The next day, when she couldn’t reach him, she called the police for a wellness check. When the police met up with Caniglia, he willingly went for a psychiatric evaluation on the condition that the police wouldn’t take his gun. The moment he was in the ambulance, using a ruse the police got Caniglia’s wife to show them the gun, which they seized. Caniglia sued, claiming the police violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The First Circuit gave the case short shrift. It relied on Cady v. Dombrowski, a 1973 case in which the Supreme Court held that, if officers patrolling public highways concluded that “community caretaking functions” militated in favor of seizing a gun from a car, they could do so. The First Circuit, therefore, declined to consider whether Caniglia consented, whether there were exigent circumstances justifying seizing the gun, or whether state law permitted the police to seize a gun from a home without a warrant.

Justice Thomas, in a miraculously brief four-page opinion, reamed the First Circuit for its careless, cavalier, and erroneous decision. He began with the Fourth Amendment itself, which protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Absent a legal warrant, this makes the home inviolable to all unreasonable intrusions. Reasonable intrusions are narrowly defined: They consist of emergency situations, such as aiding injured people or protecting people at immediate risk, or being invited in after approaching the door and knocking as any citizen may do.

In addition to the First Circuit’s lazy unwillingness do to anything other than analogizing a house to a car, Thomas nailed the court for misreading the Cady case: “…Cady expressly contrasted its treatment of a vehicle already under police control with a search of a car ‘parked adjacent to the dwelling place of the owner.’” In other words, if you’re on the freeway and the police stop you and conclude that it’s unsafe to the community for you to possess a firearm, that’s entirely different from police spontaneously seizing a weapon from anything attendant upon the home, including a car next to the house.

Moreover, said Thomas, the Cady decision’s language makes it clear that “community caretaking” doesn’t include allowing the police to do whatever they think will make for a safer community. (After all, and this is me speaking, not Thomas, police can theoretically argue that everything they do is to make a safer community. The First District’s standard would render the Fourth Amendment a nullity.) As it was, wrote Thomas,

Cady’s unmistakable distinction between vehicles and homes also places into proper context its reference to “community caretaking.” This quote comes from a portion of the opinion explaining that the “frequency with which . . . vehicle[s] can become disabled or involved in . . . accident[s] on public highways” often requires police to perform noncriminal “community caretaking functions,” such as providing aid to motorists.

Thomas’s decision proves something I have long believed: The more honest a decision, the shorter it will be. Justices (invariably activist justices) who circumvent the Constitution will write endlessly long decisions replete with innumerable case citations to marginally relevant principles, all in an effort to weave together a gossamer and dishonest fabric that only has a superficial resemblance to constitutionality. 

IMAGE: United States Supreme Court. Piqsels.

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