High Court rules that police lacked authority to seize handguns from man's home without warrant

A man sued after police entered his Rhode Island home without a warrant and took his guns.
Supreme Court building on May 17, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that police did not have the authority to enter a Rhode Island residence without a warrant and seize handguns.

"Decades ago, this Court held that a warrantless search of an impounded vehicle for an unsecured firearm did not violate the Fourth Amendment," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in delivering the Supreme Court's opinion. "In reaching this conclusion, the Court observed that police officers who patrol the 'public highways' are often called to discharge noncriminal 'community caretaking functions,' such as responding to disabled vehicles or investigating accidents," Thomas noted. "The question today is whether Cady’s acknowledgment of these 'caretaking' duties creates a standalone doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home. It does not."

The case pertained to a husband and wife who had an argument: During the the spat, the husband, Edward Caniglia, got a handgun, placed it on a table and asked his spouse to "shoot [him] now and get it over with." 

The wife stayed that night at a hotel and when she could not contact her husband via phone in the morning, she contacted authorities to ask for a welfare check.

In delivering the Supreme Court's opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that police "thought that petitioner posed a risk to himself or others. They called an ambulance, and petitioner agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation—but only after respondents allegedly promised not to confiscate his firearms. Once the ambulance had taken petitioner away, however, respondents seized the weapons. Guided by petitioner’s wife—whom they allegedly misinformed about his wishes—respondents entered the home and took two handguns.

"Petitioner sued, claiming that respondents violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant. The District Court granted summary judgment to respondents, and the First Circuit affirmed solely on the ground that the decision to remove petitioner and his firearms from the premises fell within a 'community caretaking exception' to the warrant requirement," Thomas wrote.