From the Archives: Unanimous Supreme Court — No Warrantless Seizures of Firearms in Homes

This post was first published on May 18, 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled (PDF — 17 pages) that the government violated a man’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures when it confiscated guns in his home without a warrant.

The man’s wife claimed he was suicidal and asked the police to check on him. They’d had an argument the day before, and he’d placed a gun on a table and told her to just shoot him now “and get it over with.” She left and spent the night in a hotel. The next day she couldn’t reach him on the phone and called the police to do a welfare check. The police called an ambulance for him because they believed he posed a risk to himself and others. The man denied that he was suicidal but agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation on the condition that the police wouldn’t take his guns. After the man left, the cops confiscated his guns.

The government said the warrantless seizure was justified by a “community caretaking exception,” citing a 1973 case, Cady v. Dombrowski, that involved police officers seizing a gun from an impounded vehicle. The nine justices said that case didn’t apply to the present case. Cady ruled that seizing a gun from an impounded vehicle was not a Fourth Amendment violation. The present case involves a home.

Justice Clarence Thomas, delivering the court’s opinion, contended that the very core of the Fourth Amendment is the right of a man to retreat into his own home and be free from unreasonable search and seizure in his home.

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. 413 U. S., at 441. But, this recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that—a recognition that these tasks exist, and not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the case “also implicates another body of law that petitioner glossed over: the so-called ‘red flag’ laws that some States are now enacting. These laws enable the police to seize guns pursuant to a court order to prevent their use for suicide or the infliction of harm on innocent persons.” He said the “red flag” laws might come before the Supreme Court one day, but the court didn’t address the issue in this case.

To seize guns under “red flag” laws, the government must have a court order. Such a case eventually will come before the high court.

Photo credit: Tamara Evans (Creative Commons) – Some rights reserved

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