Does Caniglia v. Strom Affect Red Flag Laws?

caniglia v. strom

Caniglia v. Strom, decided May 17, 2021, could have a significant impact on the legal future of red flag laws, given that the Court unanimously ruled that the temporary police seizure of a Rhode Island man’s guns violated the Fourth Amendment. The most important question to arise from is case is: does Caniglia v. Strom affect red flag laws?

Caniglia v. Strom

In 2015, Rhode Island resident Edward Caniglia argued with his wife. In the course of this argument, he put an unloaded gun in front of her and asked her to shoot him to, “get it over with.” She left the house and called the police.

The police arrived with an ambulance, and Caniglia agreed to go to a psychiatric evaluation as long as the cops did not take his firearms. Once he left for the hospital, the police seized his weapons. Caniglia sued, arguing that the seizure violated his Fourth Amendment protections, given that it was conducted without a warrant. The state argued that the seizure was legal because it was justified by, “a ‘community caretaking exception’ to the warrant requirement.” (Syllabus, May 17 2021).

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the police seizure of Caniglia’s weapons had violated the Fourth Amendment. Justice Thomas, writing the opinion of the Court, rejected the application of the “community caretaking exception” and ruled that the traditional requirement of a warrant remained in place.

Does Caniglia v. Strom Affect Red Flag Laws?

Caniglia v. Strom is a major victory for the right of due process and the Fourth Amendment. However, it could have broader, potentially far more consequential implications.

In a previous post, we discussed the constitutionality of red flag laws. Red flag laws are laws that allow authorities to seize firearms from an individual when that individual is believed to be a threat to themselves or others. Courts can issue confiscation orders without notification to the individual and police can execute them immediately. The person whose guns are confiscated must appear in court at a later date to argue for the return of their property.

There is a clear similarity between the events of Caniglia v. Strom and red flag laws. However, now that the Supreme Court has issued a ruling, we must ask the question: does Caniglia v. Strom affect red flag laws?

The answer to this question is not entirely settled. Caniglia v. Strom involves the warrantless seizure of firearms for reasons related to the firearm owner’s mental health. It unequivocally prohibits this type of seizure. However, many red flag laws involve prior court approval. When the cops want to take guns, they must get a court order to do so. It’s not quite a warrant, because red flag law seizures do not usually allege crime; however, court involvement is significant.

In Caniglia, officers acted without judicial approval at all. They relied on the Court’s previous enumeration of a “community caretaking exception,” created in Cady v. Dombrowski (1973), which involved the warrantless search and seizure of an impounded vehicle. The Court rejected application of this principle.

However, the involvement of courts in red flag law seizures is a complicating factor. The Court’s ruling in Caniglia certainly casts serious doubts on the future of such laws. Of course, we believe red flag laws are unconstitutional violations of the right to due process, and it appears that the Court is leaning towards aligning with that stance. By unanimously prohibiting warrantless firearms seizure for health purposes under the “community caretaking exception,” the Court casts aspersions on the underlying principles of red flag laws and provides a clear angle of attack for critics of such laws.

The question is far from settled, though. It is very likely that red flag laws will be deeply litigated in the next few years, and Caniglia v. Strom will undoubtedly be heavily cited.