A U.S. Supreme Court case that could dramatically expand the ability of police to enter homes without warrants, including to seize firearms, had a wide-ranging and freewheeling oral argument on Wednesday. In debating an exception to the Fourth Amendment, the justices managed to invoke Albert Camus, crying babies, dangerous falls by the elderly, Kojak, mask ordinances, plague rats, tree-climbing cats, and Vincent van Gogh.
The case, Caniglia v. Strom, began with a heated argument between an elderly married couple in Cranston, Rhode Island. During the squabble, Edward Caniglia grabbed an unloaded handgun and asked his wife Kim, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”
Kim decided to spend that night at a motel. Concerned about her husband, the following morning Kim asked Cranston police to perform a “well check” on Edward. When approached by police, Edward denied he was suicidal, but officers still insisted he undergo a psychiatric evaluation at a local hospital; he was immediately discharged.
But while Edward was gone, police seized two handguns from the couple without a warrant and refused to return them until Edward was forced to bring a civil rights lawsuit. To justify the seizure, police invoked the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, which the Supreme Court first crafted to deal with impounded cars and highway safety. Despite its vehicle-specific origins, both a district court and the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the warrantless gun seizures, expanding the exception to encompass private homes.