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The Supremes Vote 9-0 Against Warrantless Gun Confiscation From a Home

May 20, 2021

By Mike Keleher

Well this is a bit of a powerful statement by the U.S. Supreme Court this week. In a rare decision that is decided unanimously, the judges put their combined foot down and declared a police confiscation of privately owned firearms in a residence to have been unconstitutional per the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. So it’s not a firearms centric case, it is a search and seizure case, but firearms are certainly a big part of the story.

For all you racing fans who watch the Supreme Court just for the crashes, groupies, mono-color robes and gift shop souvenirs, a unanimous 9-0 vote is practically unheard of. You would have to really tick off nine diverse and powerful individuals all at the same time to agree on anything. Even votes for “What’s for lunch” must have dissenting opinions filed in that courtroom.

Let’s chew on this a bit, look under the hood and kick the tires on this decision. The ground work built in to the 4th Amendment is to protect people from unreasonable searches goes all the way back in history when the British troops did pretty much anything they wanted to the colonists in the name of the King before there was a USA or a constitution. The founding fathers had enough of that behavior and wrote in the 4th Amendment to protect people from the government.

The really cool thing about the Supremes making such a loud and clear determination in this case at hand, is they got to throw the smack down on the original police, who made mistakes, the prosecutors, the district court and the 1st Circuit Court of appeals who all supported the original mistakes. The Supreme court said “You are all wrong.” and “What happened is clearly unconstitutional.” That too is a rare thing- to find all those people were wrong in their opinions of just what happened in a small house in Rhode Island.

So who are our contestants on “Let’s Illegally Search and Seize Some Guns”? Glad you asked kids. We have three main players. Mr Caniglia, the lovely Mrs Caniglia, and the local police. Mr and Mrs had a bit of a marital discourse one evening and Mr Caniglia at the conclusion ending move of their argument, put an unloaded gun on the table and announced “Shoot me now and get it over with.”

This is of course cause for some concern and perhaps alarm. Did Mrs Caniglia call the police to respond immediately? No. Seems she left the familial dwelling and spent the night somewhere else. The next day she could not get in contact with Mr Caniglia, so she called the police to report she was concerned for his welfare.

The local police responded to the residence and found Mr Caniglia whole and hearty and seated upon his porch. He denied any suicidal thoughts or tendencies. The local police persuaded him to go to the local hospital for a psychological evaluation. All good so far. No one’s rights were being trammeled here.

The big kink in the story came when Mr Caniglia said he would go to the hospital, but only on the condition the police would not confiscate his personally owned firearms, which were not present on the porch.

Piecing the rest of the story together, they did get Mr Caniglia transported away from the house and then told Mrs Caniglia they would take Mr Caniglia’s weapons from the house…and oh by the way Mr Caniglia already consented to this so no messy paperwork or probable cause was necessary.

Based upon the lie that her husband already consented, Mrs Caniglia said he had two pistols inside and let the police search the house and ultimately seize them. Mr Caniglia ultimately sued the police and the trial court level and appellate levels all ruled in favor of the police action under something called the Community Care Taking exception to the 4th Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.

Well gee Uncle Mike, we never heard of a Community Care Taking exception to illegal search! We know all about the exigent circumstances exceptions like if someone’s life is in immediate danger, and the good old plain view doctrine, where if the police are in a place as part of their normal job, and happen to see evidence of a crime in plain view- they can seize it without a warrant. Even search incident to arrest does not require a warrant. Then of course there are administrative searches like listing all items in an impounded car for accountability and liability which don’t need a search warrant and little old consent. Yes kids, if someone consents to a search by the police that is an exception to the 4th Amendment’s general requirement that a search warrant must first be obtained.

Community Caretaking was first seen in a 1973 case where a suspect was charged with firearm possession after his car was impounded. Police inventoried the car as part of normal administrative procedure to list all contents, and found the gun. They had no other right to search the car or probable cause to believe the weapon was present. The Supreme Court allowed this to stand as it was part of caretaking and not investigating but was not found to be an unconstitutional search and seizure.

Well gosh Uncle Mike what are you, some kind of lawyer type? Well yes kids I am, but consider myself more of a recovering lawyer. Now didn’t Mrs Caniglia consent to the search of her residence which turned up the two guns? Well that’s where it gets tricky kids, keep your hands and arms inside the ride at all times- she did consent, but only after the police lied to her and said Mr Caniglia had already consented. This bit of chicanery actually tricked her into consent (whether she would have gone along with it or not of her own volition, we will never know.) You can’t expect a claim of consent to search to stand up in court when it was coerced and tangled with an outright lie. The Supreme Court did not dwell on that part much, but they saw it, and anything that the police did after that was tainted.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court’s opinion and acknowledged law enforcement is involved in a lot of civic task and community caretaking as well as criminal investigation and apprehension, but he said there is “no open ended-license to perform them anywhere.” The law is still the law, and Justice Thomas also said the “Core of the 4th amendment is the right of a man to retreat in to his own home and there be free from unreasonable search and seizure.” The police search and seizure went too far. The court would not give the police greater leeway to conduct warrantless searches of a residence as guaranteed under the 4th amendment. Going way, way back before your grandpappy was aborn, the Court of much older Supremes said any search that does not use a search warrant or one of the exceptions is on it’s face presumed to be invalid.

Right along side Thomas’ opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion. Opinions that are not the main finding are often ignored by the fans in the bleachers, but in this case Alito gives us a rare “Come ahead. Clear Track” wave-on about red flag laws. This case did not involve a red flag law. You know, the newest “Somebody should do something” feelgood laws enacted in some states that allow 3rd parties to tell the police a suspect may be dangerous and the police get a court order to go confront the suspect and removes any weapons from their possession- without seeming due process. Well Justice Alito felt strongly enough to write his concurring opinion and said even though there were no red flag laws in this case with the Caniglias, “red flag provisions may be challenged under the 4th amendment.” So, is the Supreme Court ready to take on the constitutionality of red flag laws? It kind of looks like it. Maybe it is a burr under Alito’s saddle and he wants someone to deliver a case to the court. Rare and interesting tip off Judge Sam.

Careful kids you just might learn something if you hung in here all the way to the end of the story. Probably didn’t expect that to happen! Blame it on yer old Uncle Mike the Recovering Lawyer.