Can the police enter your house and take your stuff without a warrant?

April 08, 2021 | By DANIEL WOISLAW
US Supreme Court West Facade

Can the police enter your home and confiscate your weapons without a warrant? That’s the question the Supreme Court is getting ready to decide in Caniglia v. Strom. But the answer won’t be found in the Second Amendment. Instead, the Court will consider whether the police violated a Rhode Island man’s Fourth Amendment right against government intrusions into the home when they entered his house to take away his guns without a warrant.

Mr. and Mrs. Caniglia had an argument the night before in which Mr. Caniglia dropped a gun on the table and dramatically told Mrs. Caniglia to shoot him and “get me out of my misery.” Understandably, she spent the night away in a motel room following this oral dispute. When Mrs. Caniglia came home the next morning, she brought the police with her because she worried Mr. Caniglia might have harmed himself. But when Mr. Caniglia answered the door, he dealt with the police rationally and informed them he was not suicidal. They ordered him into an ambulance for a psychiatric evaluation at a nearby hospital anyway, and then searched his house and confiscated his guns.

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans’ homes from searches by government agents, whether they are police officers searching for evidence of crime or county inspectors looking for regulatory violations. This part of the Constitution protects our property in two important ways. First, it ensures due process of law by requiring government agents to justify a search or seizure by convincing a judge that it is necessary before carrying it out. And second, it relies on the separation of powers by insisting that a judge decide whether a search or seizure of a person or property is justified by law and sufficiently limited in scope to protect against arbitrary invasions of privacy.

Caniglia v. Strom presents the Court with the question of whether the officers were required by the Fourth Amendment to seek a warrant from a judge before entering the house, rather than deciding for themselves that a search was justified. There are obvious reasons why judges, rather than police officers, should decide whether a search or seizure is legal before entering someone’s home. Officers want to investigate and enforce the laws. Judges, by contrast, are neutral. To give police the power to decide whether their intrusions on private property are reasonable puts individuals’ property and privacy interests at risk.

“But what about emergencies?” Indeed, in the case of emergencies, there is no time to go through the formal process of obtaining a warrant. But the lower court in Caniglia specifically avoided considering whether the search of Mr. Caniglia’s house was based on an emergency. The decision of the federal Court of Appeals that Mr. Caniglia appealed from specifically set aside all of the legal doctrines that typically allow for warrantless searches and seizures in the context of emergencies. Instead, it decided that the police can enter a house any time they need when they are engaged in “community caretaking functions.” If you’re confused about what a “community caretaking function” is, you aren’t the only one.

A rule that requires police to get a warrant before entering a home, except in emergency situations, is clear. The “community caretaking” justification offered by the appellate court provides little guidance to police officers or security to homeowners against unjustified searches and seizures.

If the Supreme Court affirms the First Circuit’s holding, then American homes could be opened up to more and more warrantless intrusions by government agents. It would be an open question whether an officer could enter a private home without permission to enforce COVID restrictions, or whether a social worker or other bureaucrat could enter to perform a suspicionless welfare check on children or pets.

In fact, during the recent oral arguments in the case, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked the lawyer for the officers whether their proposed “community caretaker” rationale for home searches would let a police officer enter a residence without a warrant to enforce COVID restrictions limiting in-person gatherings. His answer was “Yes.”

Fortunately, the purpose, original meaning, and text of the Fourth Amendment are clear enough to give the Supreme Court justices all the reason they need to hold that in the absence of an emergency, the government must obtain judicial permission to enter a private house. That’s why Pacific Legal Foundation submitted this amicus curiae brief explaining why the fundamental property and privacy interests of American homes will yield to the government only where it has obtained judicial permission to enter or is responding to an ongoing emergency.

The Fourth Amendment was inspired by the Framers’ desire for more freedom against arbitrary government invasions of their property. With our help, the Court will hopefully remember this when deciding Caniglia v. Strom.