Unreasonable seizure of firearms

Arden v. McIntosh, et al. (No. 14-1517) (10th Cir. July 23, 2015)

Deputy’s warrantless seizure of firearms from the home of a person after the person had been removed from the home and hospitalized for suicidal behavior constitutes unreasonable seizure under 4 th amendment, but deputy entitled to qualified immunity

Background: Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to Arden’s home after a caller reported to emergency staff that Arden had called her and in slurred speech had stated that he was taking pills and would continue taking them because nobody cared about him. Deputies found the front door to Arden’s home open. Officers announced their presence, found Mr. Arden in his bedroom, incoherent and unresponsive. Medics soon arrived and took Mr. Arden to the hospital, where he was placed on an “emergency mental health hold.” While still at the home, a deputy saw 23 firearms and ammunition in plain sight; these were collected and held for safekeeping at the police station. After Mr. Arden was released from the hospital, the firearms and ammunition were returned to him.

Mr. Arden filed suit in state court alleging a 4 th amendment violation and that the Sheriff failed to provide proper policies, training, and supervision in regard to such activities. The defendants removed the case to federal court, and moved for summary judgment, claiming they were entitled to “qualified immunity” for their actions. The district court granted the motion, finding no constitutional violations in the deputies’ conduct. Mr. Arden appealed, arguing that once he was taken from his home to the hospital, exigency ended, so that the subsequent warrantless search and seizure were not justified. The deputy argued that, because she was already authorized to be in the home and the weapons were in plain sight and her seizure was temporary and carried out for public safety purposes, her actions were authorized by law enforcement’s “community caretaking” role.

Holdings: A 3-judge panel of the Circuit Court ruled that the exigency was removed when Arden was removed from the home to the hospital, so that there was no cited legal authority for removing the firearms from the home. As a result, the firearms seizure constituted an unlawful seizure under the 4 th amendment. However, at the time of that seizure, there was no existing case law that gave the deputy “fair warning” that this conduct was unreasonable. Accordingly, the deputy was protected by “qualified immunity” from liability because she could have a good faith belief that her conduct was lawful.

Notable Points: The panel noted that no authority could be found “authorizing a police officer to confiscate weapons that would otherwise be left in an unoccupied house,” but also that no authority clearly established “that firearms may not constitutionally be removed from a residence under these circumstances.”

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 3