The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral argument Caniglia v. Strom, a case that could have sweeping consequences for policing, due process, and psychological health, with the Biden Administration and attorneys general from nine countries urging the High Court to uphold warrantless gun confiscation. But what would finally become a major Fourth Amendment case started with an elderly couple’s spat over a coffee mug.
In August 2015, 68-year-old Edward Caniglia joked to Kim, his wife of 22 years, which he didn’t use a certain coffee mug following his brother-in-law had used it because he”might catch a case of dishonesty.” This quip quickly spiraled into an hour-long argument. Growing drained from the bickering, Edward stormed into his bedroom, caught an unloaded handgun, and set it to the kitchen table before his wife. Having a flair for the dramatic, he then asked:”Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strategy backfired and both continued to argue. Finally, Edward took a push to cool off. However, when he returned, their debate flared up once again. This time, Kim chose to leave the home and spend the night in a motel. The next day, Kim called home. No answer.
Worried, she called the police in Cranston, Rhode Island and asked them to execute a”well check” on her husband and to escort her property. When they arrived, officers spoke with Edward on the back deck. Based on an incident report, he”seemed normal,””was calm for the most part,” and even said”he would never commit suicide.”
However, not one of those officers had asked Edward some questions about the variables concerning his risk of suicide, threat of violence, or preceding abuse of guns. (Edward had no criminal record and no history of violence or self-harm.) In fact, one of those officers later admitted that he”did not consult any specific psychological or psychiatric criteria” or health care professionals because of their decisions daily.
Still, police were convinced that Edward could damage himself and insisted he head to a nearby hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. After refusing and insisting that his mental health was not their business, Edward consented only after police (falsely) promised they would not seize his guns while he was gone.
Compounding the dishonesty, police then told Kim the Edward had consented to the confiscation. Believing the seizures were accepted by her husband, Kim directed the officers into the two handguns the couple owned, which had been instantly captured. Though Edward was immediately discharged from the hospital, authorities simply returned the firearms after he filed a civil rights lawsuit .
Critically, when authorities captured the firearms, they did not claim it was an emergency or to prevent imminent threat. Rather, the officers argued their activities were a kind of”community caretaking,” a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
First created by the Supreme Court almost 50 years before, the community caretaking exception was designed for cases involving impounded automobiles and highway sa