The Fourth Amendment is the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights. All the rest don’t mean a thing if the police can stop you, search you, and seize you at will. And trust me, they can. Courts have spent the last century or so inventing enough exceptions to your right to remain free from unreasonable search and seizure that the Fourth Amendment isn’t worth the paper all those warrants aren’t written on.
On the other hand, the idea that you might have to show your license before you buy a rocket launcher at Wal-Mart incenses a large group of people. The NRA has much of the country convinced that the government will be knocking on your door any day now to take all your guns. Strangely, the same group of people seems fully on-board with the police having unchecked power to search you for the devil weed. As long as they don’t take that gun.
Seems like a strange contradiction, but one that most of us have come to accept. I am not sure how you keep your gun without the Fourth Amendment. But as the United States Supreme Court gears up to consider a case that will undoubtedly offer another chance to blow a hole in the Fourth Amendment, there was some hope for a rational decision.
In Caniglia v. Strom, the Fourth Amendment has paired up with the Second Amendment. One can only hope this newest power couple might slow down the steady march towards a world full of unreasonable searches and seizures. Unfortunately, that is unlikely.
The case began where a lot of law does – with a marital spat. In August of 2015 (the wheels of justice grind slowly) Edward Caniglia and his wife Kim were fighting:
During a heated late August argument in 2015, Edward Caniglia dramatically presented his wife of 22 years, Kim Caniglia, with an unloaded gun and requested that she put him out of his misery. She did not. Instead, she threatened to call 911. Edward temporarily left their home to “take a ride.” When he returned, the couple resumed arguing. This time, Kim decided she would leave. She packed a bag and overnighted at a hotel. Edward remained home, alone.
After not hearing from her husband the next day, Kim called the police to go check on him. Police arrived and spoke with Edward. If you doubt how much power an individual police officer has over your life, pay attention:
A couple of the officers on the scene reported that Edward was calm and cooperative; however, the ranking officer on the scene pronounced Edward “imminently dangerous to himself and others” and arranged for an ambulance transport to obtain a psychiatric evaluation.
The next time someone tells you if only people were just “calm and cooperative” in dealing with the police, remember that. Edward Caniglia’s calm cooperation got him carted off to a mental hospital. Doubling down on their role as your caretaker, police then searched the Caniglia house and seized all his guns.
Caniglia, however, ended up being no real threat to anyone:
Meanwhile, at the hospital, Edward was evaluated but not admitted. Nor was he ever arrested or charged with a criminal offense.
Despite nothing to back up the ranking officer’s belief Caniglia was dangerous, police took the guns and refused to return them for months. When they were finally returned, Caniglia was understandably irritated with the turn of events. So he sued the police for unreasonably seizing both him and his guns.
Not surprisingly, the district court dismissed most of Caniglia’s claims. On appeal, the government argued the district court was correct in siding with the police officers based on the so-called “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. The exception allows the police to search for no other reason than their general responsibility to take care of the community. Usually limited to cars, the police and courts in this case seek to extend the exception to your house, too.
At the end of March, the United States Supreme Court heard Caniglia’s case. His argument was simple; the sanctity of a citizen’s home is one of the most important ideals protected by the Fourth Amendment.
At oral argument, the justices seemed troubled, as usual, by any real check on police power. These days, the arguments at the nation’s highest court seem to revolve around more and more ridiculous hypotheticals. The justices seem unconcerned with the practical effect of their rulings, which makes sense. Very few of them have actually represented a real client. By real, I mean a desperate person whose future turns on the arbitrariness of the criminal justice system, as opposed to the government or a Big Corporation.
As the argument developed, the concept of “imminency” became central to the justices and the lawyers in their arguments. The point was made clear when Caniglia’s lawyer started his rebuttal argument:
But before Dvoretzky began, the chief justice asked whether he was concerned that Caniglia’s case relied so heavily on the lack of imminency. What about cases where the exigency is not imminent or the emergency is not urgent? Dvoretzky stressed that the “carefully defined temporal limit” of both these exceptions is canon; moreover, it serves as a guardrail against police pretext, the elimination of which risks officer abuse.
Justice Sotomayor was more direct in chastising Caniglia’s lawyer for his argument, which seemed to recognize the police cannot always be trusted:
It was, however, Sotomayor who had reached her limit with Dvoretzky’s unwavering adherence to the extant law. She chastised him both for “going too far” and for what she seemed to regard as his failure to offer a rule that would allow for warrantless home entries for potential imminencies: “Why can’t you see the difference?! Why can’t your rule articulate that difference in a more reasonable way?”
Sotomayor’s inquiry succinctly reveals the problem with the caretaking function – it relies far too heavily on police discretion. Allowing for “potential imminencies” (an oxymoronic phrase) really allows for police to fall back on the “we thought we needed to get in that house” argument. As Caniglia found out, there is no real remedy when that judgment call is wrong.
The real-world application of this exception is problematic, as evidenced by exactly what happened here. Some of the officers on the scene felt Caniglia was fine, but one did not. His judgment ruled the day and Caniglia was carted off to a mental hospital. And police used that opportunity to search his house.
The Second Amendment gets treated like some kind of historically unassailable right without limitation, while the Fourth Amendment continues a death march towards irrelevance. In this case, it appears the Supreme Court is poised to grant the police even more unchecked power to search your house, seize your stuff, and generally be unreasonable.
Remember, that includes taking your guns, too.