Cars, Homes & Emergencies: Implications from Caniglia for Gun Laws

By: Jacob Charles

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Caniglia v. Strom. At issue in the case was whether police could enter a home and search and seize items without a warrant when conducting “community caretaking functions” (i.e., not traditional criminal investigation). The Court had held in 1973, in Cady v. Dombrowski, that police could search an impounded vehicle for an unsecured gun without a warrant. That case spawned a debate in the lower courts and among scholars about whether the so-called “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extended beyond cars in public places and into the home.

Like Cady, Caniglia grew out of a concern over guns. The case began when Edward Caniglia’s wife called the police to perform a welfare check after he had, the night before, placed a handgun on the table and asked her to shoot him. (She left thereafter and spent the night at a hotel.) Police accompanied Caniglia’s wife to the house the next morning, met him on the porch, and called an ambulance to take him for a psychiatric evaluation. After Caniglia was gone, police entered the home and seized two handguns. Caniglia later sued the police, arguing that the entry into his home and firearm seizure violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The lower courts rejected the claim, with the First Circuit concluding that Cady created a warrant exception that extended into the home. (Caniglia also raised a Second Amendment claim in the court below, but did not maintain that claim at SCOTUS, as we've noted.)

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Thomas, read Cady more narrowly. The Court noted that it has previously recognized several exceptions to the warrant requirement, including “when certain exigent circumstances exist,” like the need to render emergency aid to a home occupant or “to protect an occupant from imminent injury” (p.3). But the Cady rule, the Court insisted, did not create a whole new categorical exception when officers are performing community caretaking functions. Indeed, the Court insisted that Cady was fundamentally different because it did not involve the home. “What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes” (p.4). The Court thus sent the case back to the lower court. After Caniglia, it is clear there is no such thing as an exception to the warrant requirement for home entry based on a category of police action that can be called community caretaking.

The series of separate concurring opinions are also noteworthy. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for himself and Justice Breyer, wrote a one paragraph concurrence to stress that nothing in the Court’s opinion was contrary to the established rule that “[a] warrant to enter a home is not required . . . when there is a need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury” (p.1). Justice Kavanaugh, writing for himself, wrote to “elaborate” on the Chief Justice’s concurrence. His opinion briefly traced the rule allowing for warrantless entry to render aid to an injured or possibly injured person. This rule and the other warrant exceptions, he noted, were drawn from “common-law analogies and a commonsense appraisal of what is ‘reasonable’” (p.1). Under his view of the exigent circumstances exception, the rule “permit[s] warrantless entries when police officers have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is a current, ongoing crisis for which it is reasonable to act now” (p.3-4). Notably, he emphasized, this does not require imminence or immediacy. He provided several examples where he thought it obvious police could enter a home without a warrant, including a woman who calls 911, says she is contemplating suicide and has firearms in the home, and does not answer the door when police arrive. “The Fourth Amendment does not require officers to stand idly outside as the suicide takes place” (p.4).

Justice Alito also wrote separately for just himself, highlighting specific areas the Court’s decision did not reach and suggesting that not “all searches and seizures conducted for non-law-enforcement purposes must be analyzed under precisely the same Fourth Amendment rules developed in criminal cases” (p.2). He specifically noted the increasing adoption of Extreme Risk Protection Order laws (aka red flag laws) and how “[t]hese 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” (p.3). The Court’s opinion did not address issues that may arise from those laws, he wrote.

Of course, I can’t help see this case through the guns lens. It has potential ramifications for both challenges to laws like ERPOs on Fourth Amendment grounds and for the pending Second Amendment challenge to New York’s concealed-carry licensing law. As to the Fourth Amendment, it seems to me that the justices aren’t too keen on restricting the ability of states and law enforcement to render aid when a person might harm himself or others—something that the ERPO laws expressly attempt to do, with (as Joseph and I have argued), due process protections built in. The Chief Justice and Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrences in particular seem eager to provide assurances that police can respond when necessary to potentially save a life.

As to the Second Amendment, the Court’s emphasis on the significance of the home—and what sets it apart from ordinary activity in public—might have some application in Corlett. As Lenese Herbert put it on SCOTUSblog, the Court’s decision in Caniglia is “a reminder that there is, in fact, no place like home.” Historically, states have had broader leeway to regulate guns in public than guns in the home. The Second Amendment doctrine the Court develops might work similarly to its Fourth Amendment rules. Just as Justice Thomas emphasized that Fourth Amendment reasonableness might require different rules for the home and for cars, so too the Second Amendment might mandate different analyses for gun laws regulating home possession and those regulating public carry. Indeed, Justice Thomas reiterated the Court’s prior statements that the “very core” of the Fourth Amendment guarantee is “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion,” (p.3) even though the Fourth Amendment’s text makes no distinction between one’s home and her person, papers, or effects. A similar core vs. non-core argument has been used to distinguish between the Second Amendment’s apex protection for keeping an operable handgun in the home for self-defense and its non-core protection for carrying a loaded gun in public. Only time will tell if the eventual Corlett majority extends these principles from its Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.