In an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, a civil-liberties legal group contends lower-court rulings in a Rhode Island case have set a dangerous precedent that allows police officers in some instances to enter the homes of citizens without a warrant and confiscate legal firearms.
The Rutherford Institute, in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Caniglia v. Strom, asserts the lower courts wrongly invoked the “community caretaking” exemption in the Fourth Amendment.
“This case represents a blatant attempt by law enforcement to create gaping holes in the Fourth Amendment force field that is supposed to protect homeowners and their homes against warrantless invasions by the government,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.
“What we do not need is yet another slippery slope argument that allows government officials to masquerade as community caretakers under the pretext of public health and safety in order to violate the Fourth Amendment at will.”
In 2015, Kim Caniglia of Cranston, Rhode Island, called police for a welfare check on her husband Edward, 68, after they had argued the night before and she hadn’t heard from him the next morning. Rutherford said that during the argument, Edward retrieved his unloaded handgun, slammed it on a table dramatically and told Kim, ‘Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”
Police contacted Edward and he was mostly calm and told them he wouldn’t commit suicide. He explained he made the comment out of frustration during the heat of an argument. Then, despite his response, police took him into custody and confined him in a psychiatric hospital.
“While Edward was at the hospital, police entered his home and seized his handguns, despite having promised not to do so,” the institute said.
Edward Caniglia later sued the police for their warrantless entry and confiscation of his lawfully owned firearms, which he contends violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
However, the lower courts ruled in favor of the police, who claimed their seizure of the weapons was within the Fourth Amendment’s “community caretaking” exception, which typically has been limited to searching vehicles during traffic stops.
If the precedent stands, the institute argued in its brief to the Supreme Court, police would be allowed to “enter a home without a warrant and seize lawfully possessed firearms.”
The institute explained: “The warrantless searches and seizures to which American colonists had been subjected under English rule were among the driving forces behind enactment of the Bill of Rights in general and the Fourth Amendment in particular. Both as drafted and as applied by the court, the Fourth Amendment clearly creates a reasonable expectation of privacy in the home. The sacrosanct nature of the home is such that the circumstances under which warrantless home searches are permitted are few and far between.
“That explains why one of the few exceptions to the warrant requirement that the court has previously recognized – the so-called ‘community caretaking exception – is expressly limited in scope to vehicles, where the reasonable expectation of privacy is much narrower.”
However, if permitted to stand, “this application of the exception will swallow the rule.”
The brief asks the Supreme Court to “not create a new exception that would permit the warrantless entry at issue here.”
Further, if homes are no longer protected, then “every building or structure is threatened, no matter its location or status, as are its contents.”
Rutherford noted Kim Caniglia said her concern was that she might find her husband “hanging from the rafters.”
According to the rationale of police in the case, the institute argued, officers could have used that statement to justify seizing all of the rope or other cordage in the house and garage.
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