Supreme Court must close loophole that lets New York cops seize guns without warrant

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Through a little-known loophole, lower federal courts have routinely written the government a blank check to raid the homes and seize the guns of lawful gun owners without a warrant. One of those owners, Wayne Torcivia, is now asking the United States Supreme Court to close that loophole once and for all.

Torcivia’s case dates back to April 6, 2014, when three officers from Suffolk County, New York showed up at his Ronkonkoma home just after midnight. They were responding to what they were told was “a violent domestic dispute between a 17-year-old woman and an inebriated father”. Both sides dispute what happened next.

Torcivia claimed one of the officers threatened him with a Taser, and he warned the officer, “I wouldn’t do that, I have a heart condition. I could die.” According to officers, Torcivia asked them to “please taser me and kill me.” Torcivia, for her part, denied any suicidal statements.

In any case, this alleged request was “the magic phrase, the phrase that brought him to the point where we had to have him evaluated,” said an officer. Torcivia was quickly handcuffed and taken to the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program unit at Stony Brook University Hospital.

Since hospital policy did not allow thorough evaluations until an admitted person was sober, staff let Torcivia sleep. When he awoke, a nurse determined that there was “no indication for acute psychiatric admission” and that Torcivia was “not imminently dangerous” to himself or to others. others ; the nurse recommended unloading Torcivia.

But Torcivia couldn’t leave right away. Curiously, only after Torcivia turned the suit over to his gun safe, which allowed Suffolk County to seize his guns without a warrant, had the hospital officially discharged him. Torcivia spent more than 12 hours in custody at the psychiatric hospital – plenty of time for the police to get a warrant.

Because it was committed unintentionally, Torcivia was no longer eligible for a gun license in Suffolk County; two months after his arrest, police revoked Torcivia’s pistol license. It’s been over eight years now and Torcivia still hasn’t gotten his handguns back, even though he hasn’t been charged with a crime.

To enforce her Fourth Amendment rights, Torcivia sued. It should have been a slam dunk. Just last year in Caniglia vs. Strom, The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of a Rhode Island man who had his firearms seized without a warrant while undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. With its decision, the Supreme Court firmly rejected expanding a Fourth Amendment (“community care”) exception to include the home.

Even though Caniglia was rendered just six months prior, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit still ruled against Torcivia last November. In fact, despite nearly identical factual patterns for both cases, the Second Circuit devoted only a single footnote to discussing Caniglia. Instead, the court relied on the so-called “special needs exception,” which allows the government to authorize a seizure without a warrant if it is citing a vague health or safety reason that “meets a special need beyond the normal need for law enforcement”.

For Suffolk County to justify seizing Torcivia’s guns, they simply cited a “special need” to prevent suicide and domestic violence, even though Torcivia was not considered a suicide risk and her daughter was n never claimed that she had been assaulted.

Although the Torcivia case centers on the confiscation of firearms, the special needs exception goes far beyond firearms. The Second Circuit sided with an environmental protection officer who entered the “completely enclosed” backyard of a Long Island man to secure a permit to expand his dock. Other federal courts have used the exception to uphold warrantless home invasions to seize documents and forcibly evict a 64-year-old Holocaust survivor who died while removed from her home.

Urging the Supreme Court to take up Torcivia’s case, the Institute for Justice warns in an amicus brief that the special needs exception “has no significant limiting features.” After all, given the scope and scale of government today, “what does government do that cannot be defined in terms of health or safety?” And unlike the narrowly limited and “historically rooted” exceptions for emergencies, the special needs exception is completely “detached from the text and history of the Fourth Amendment.” Simply put, the Special Needs Exception wrote the police “a blank check…to justify warrantless home invasions.”

The special needs exception also flies in the face of recent Supreme Court precedent. In addition to Caniglia, the High Court closed another one major Fourth Amendment loophole last year. In Lange v. Californiathe court refused “to print a new authorization slip to enter the house without a warrant” and rejected the idea that the pursuit of a hit-and-run suspect would still be considered an exception to the requirement of Fourth Amendment mandate.

Lange also reaffirmed a long line of cases that emphasized that “the home is entitled to special protection.” Any exception that would allow for warrantless intrusion into the home must be “jealously and carefully crafted”. “As far as the Fourth Amendment is concerned,” wrote the late Justice Antonin Scalia, “the house is first among equals.” The “very heart” of the Fourth Amendment, he added, is “the right of a man to retire to his own house and be there free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.”

Unless the Supreme Court takes up Torcivia’s case, the special needs exception will continue its unwarranted attack on the Fourth Amendment.

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