Every police officer in the state has the power to commit someone who is believed to be a danger to themselves or others. That authority comes from Connecticut General Statute §17a-503(a). The statue reads, in part, “Any police officer who has reasonable cause to believe that a person has psychiatric disabilities and is dangerous to himself or herself or others or gravely disabled, and in need of immediate care and treatment, may take such person into custody and take or cause such person to be taken to a general hospital for emergency examination under this section. The officer shall execute a written request for emergency examination detailing the circumstances under which the person was taken into custody, and such request shall be left with the facility. The person shall be examined within twenty-four hours and shall not be held for more than seventy-two hours….”
We all know how this works. The police receive a call, and after an investigation, if the officer believes the person to be a danger to themself or others, the officer fills out a form, calls an ambulance, and the person is transported to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. This statute, and procedure, is used for a number of occasions including someone who is believed to be suicidal. This is generally not challenged, although it is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, because no charges are filed and this is seen as a protective act, rather than punishment. Under the same theory, when the police believe someone is in danger of using a firearm against themselves, they generally seize the firearm or firearms, for safekeeping. This is where there might be an issue.
The United States Supreme Court recently released an opinion that clarifies when and how an officer seizes firearms after a committal. The facts of Caniglia v. Strom are typical. Mr. and Mrs. Caniglia got into an argument, after which Mr. Caniglia put a handgun on the table and asked his wife to shoot him and get it over with. Obviously she did not shoot him; rather, she left the house and spent the night at a hotel. When she could not get in touch with her husband the next morning, she called the police. The police contacted Mr. Caniglia that morning and decided to have him evaluated at a hospital. Mr. Caniglia agreed to go to the hospital peacefully under the condition that the police did not seize his guns. Once Mr. Caniglia left the scene, the police seized his firearms. Now, to be fair, that was the right thing to do. You certainly would not want Mr. Caniglia coming back from the hospital to a house full of guns. The problem is with the way the guns were seized.
Mr. Caniglia upset that the police seized his firearms, brough a §1983 civil rights action against the police alleging his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated. Initially, the Federal District Court dismissed the suit citing the “community caretaker” exception to the search warrant requirement. After appeal, the United States Supreme Court decided to hear the case. The Court held that the community caretaker function, and exception, does not justify warrantless searches of a person’s home. Justice Thomas explained, “ “The very core of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee is the right of a person to retreat into his home and ‘there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusions.’”
So now what? The answer is not to avoid seizing firearms, but to use the tools you have at your disposal. Your best bet is to secure the residence and apply for a firearms risk warrant. If you are not familiar with a firearms risk warrant, please review Connecticut General Statute §29-38c. While this may be a little more work, it protects you from liability and ensures a hearing before firearms are released back to the person. This protects both you and the owner of the firearms.
If you have any questions about how to use a firearms risk warrant, or your administration is giving you a hard time about the added workload, please give us a call. We can answer all your questions.