For the second time in less than four years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has filed a federal lawsuit over a Cranston Police Department policy of refusing to return firearms seized without a warrant from residents who are neither charged with a crime nor found to pose a danger to themselves or others. Today’s suit, on behalf of resident Edward Caniglia, argues the Cranston Police Department violated his right to due process and his right to keep and bear arms by retaining his firearms without just cause after seizing them without a warrant.
In August, Cranston police officers and paramedics arrived at Mr. Caniglia’s home for a wellness check after his wife called the department concerned that she had not heard from him following an argument the previous evening. When officers arrived at the home, they told Caniglia that his lawfully-owned firearms would be confiscated without a warrant if he refused to submit to a mental health evaluation. Caniglia agreed to the evaluation and was transported by ambulance to the hospital where he was examined by a physician and then freely released. The lawsuit argues that while he was being transported to the hospital, police officers, without Caniglia’s permission or a warrant, confiscated for “safekeeping” his two firearms and ammunition. The officers told Caniglia’s wife that once he was cleared by the hospital, they could pick up their property at the police station.
A few days later, his wife went to the station to retrieve the guns, only to wait for four hours and then be told they would not be returned to her. Mr. Caniglia then attempted to retrieve his guns, but officers again refused. Only after an attorney requested in writing that the guns be returned did Cranston Police Chief Michael J. Winquist indicate that it was department policy to not return weapons confiscated for safekeeping without a court order requiring their return.
The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, argues that the police department’s practice of requiring weapons owners, who are not charged with a crime and who do not pose a danger to themselves or others, to file suit in order to recover their seized property is a violation of their due process and Second Amendment rights.
The ACLU of RI sued Cranston officials three years ago in a nearly identical situation involving another resident. In that case, the City settled the suit by agreeing to return the seized weapons, make any necessary repairs to them, and pay damages and attorneys’ fees. Despite that resolution, the City apparently did not revise the policy that was at issue in that suit, and still refuses to do so. The ACLU of RI filed suit in April against a similar policy in North Smithfield, and that case is pending.
ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas W. Lyons said today: “We bring this lawsuit to establish that police departments do not have unbridled discretion to violate the constitutional and statutory rights of law-abiding gun owners. Including the pending lawsuit against the Town of North Smithfield, this is the third such lawsuit that the ACLU has been forced to bring against a Rhode Island municipality alleging similar circumstances.”
Responding to recent mass shootings in the country, ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: “We recognize the need for thoughtful and carefully crafted regulations when it comes to access to guns. In this case, however, Cranston police have set their own rules in refusing to return the property of an individual who was shown to pose no threat to himself or others. As the country works to address issues of community safety, it must not do so at the expense of due process and fair application of the law.”
In addition to seeking the immediate return of Mr. Caniglia’s firearms, today’s suit seeks a court order prohibiting the police department from keeping lawfully owned weapons that are seized without a warrant when the individuals have neither been deemed to be a threat to themselves or others nor charged with a crime. The suit also asks the court to declare unconstitutional the policy that requires weapons owners to engage in formal litigation in order to recover their seized property.