1st Circuit: Officers Can Seize Guns for Community Caretaking

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Caniglia v. Strom, 2020 WL 1226491 (1st Cir. 2020)

Anytime a judge begins an opinion with, “We start with the cast of characters” and “rehearse facts in the light most congenial to the … loser,” one can anticipate an interesting case. “Marital discord erupted at the Caniglia residence,” the account continues. Husband went to the bedroom, retrieved a handgun, tossed it on the table and told his wife to just shoot him and get it over with. Wife threatened to call police, though she did not either call the police or shoot husband. Husband stormed out. Wife returned the gun to the usual place but hid the magazine under the mattress.

Wife decided she would go to a hotel for the night if husband returned and was still angry. He came back, sparking a second spat. Wife left for the night. The following morning, she telephoned husband but got no answer. Wife called the police and asked for an officer to accompany her to the home because husband was depressed and she was worried for him.

An officer telephoned husband, who agreed to speak with police in person. Four officers accompanied wife to the home. Husband confirmed he invited wife to shoot him. However, he told the officers his mental health was “none of their business” and denied he was suicidal.

In his salmagundi of claims, husband alleged he and his guns were seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment and his Second Amendment rights were trampled, along with other sundry state law claims.

The supervisor on the scene decided the husband was imminently dangerous to himself and others. Husband agreed to be taken to a hospital. Learning there was another gun at the home, the supervisor decided to seize both guns for safekeeping. Wife pointed out the location of guns, magazines and ammunition, though whether she requested or acceded to their removal is disputed. Husband was evaluated at the hospital, but not admitted. Officers never began a criminal investigation, treating the encounter as a welfare check.

After his return home, husband asked for the return of his guns. The police declined his request. Husband, through an attorney, sought a court order. Before the order was finalized, the police returned the guns to husband. Husband then sued police, filing a salmagundi of claims.

We interrupt this case note to discuss the aforementioned salmagundi. We pause because I just felt another unnerving aftershock following a recent earthquake in our area and need a bit of humor and you need some vocabulary help to read this court’s opinion. “Salmagundi” is not, precisely speaking, a legal term. Moreover, it is not to be confused with Solomon Grundy from the 1842 nursery rhyme and/or the DC Comics super-zombie, or even Solomon Grundy of Crash Test Dummies fame.

Salmagundi generally refers to a 16th or 17th century dish of chopped stewed meat (often calves’ hooves), anchovies, eggs, onions and seasonings. In jurisprudence, salmagundi is a term most often used by Judge Bruce M. Selya, the author of this case opinion. This is the judge whose opinions are peppered with hundred-dollar words such as crapulous (stinking drunk), perlustration (intense scrutiny ), sockdolager (a hellacious blow), vaticination (scientific wild ass guess about the future), rodomontade (extended boast or brag) and philotheoparoptesism (burning or boiling heretics in oil).

Getting back to the case at hand, in his salmagundi of claims, husband alleged he and his guns were seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment and his Second Amendment rights were trampled, along with other sundry state law claims. The officers countered they were engaging in their community caretaking role to protect husband.

Qualified immunity protected the officers on the Fourth Amendment seizure claims. Husband claimed the officers should have recognized he was not genuinely suicidal. Moreover, he argued, the officers were not acting in conformity with department policy that authorized seizing him for a psychiatric evaluation.

The court disagreed. The officers knew husband had tossed a gun toward wife and told her to “shoot [him] now and get it over with.” The officers also knew wife was sufficiently concerned to leave the home and go to a hotel and call for a welfare check on the following morning because she feared he might have committed suicide. No officer “confronted with this scenario would be acting unreasonably by refusing to shut his eyes to [husband’s] obvious risk of self-harm.”

Husband argued removing the guns was unreasonable because he was no longer in the home. The court gave this argument little credence. The officers could not know what husband’s mental state would be upon his release. Nor did they know whether he would be monitored after the evaluation. The court noted husband “might refuse an evaluation and shortly return home in the same troubled mental state.”

The court also resolved the Second Amendment claim through a grant of qualified immunity: “When all is said and done, we need not conduct an archeological dig into this uncertain terrain.” The court held the law was not clearly established that officers seizing firearms in pursuance of “community caretaking functions would, by doing so, trespass on the Second Amendment.”

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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