, Supreme Court Closes Fourth Amendment Loophole That Let Cops Enter Homes Without Warrants, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Supreme Court Closes Fourth Amendment Loophole That Let Cops Enter Homes Without Warrants

, Supreme Court Closes Fourth Amendment Loophole That Let Cops Enter Homes Without Warrants, The Nzuchi News Forbes

In a decisive win for the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday refused “to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant.” Generally, law enforcement may only enter someone’s home with a warrant. But one exception are so-called “exigent circumstances,” which permit warrantless entry for emergency situations, like preventing imminent injury or the destruction of evidence. The Supreme Court has previously upheld the “hot pursuit” of suspected felons as an exigent circumstance, but rejected expanding that exception for traffic offenses. 

Courts in California, along with half a dozen other states, had declared that law enforcement never needed a warrant to enter someone’s home, so long as they were pursuing someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor, no matter how minor. Wednesday’s decision in Lange v. California invalidated those rulings, with the Supreme Court refusing to categorically declare pursuit of fleeing misdemeanor suspects an exigent circumstance.  

“This decision was a victory for all Americans’ right to be secure in their homes,” said Joshua Windham, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which filed an amicus brief siding with the petitioner, Arthur Lange. “The Court rightly holds that if police want to burst into our homes—our castles—to pursue trivial offenses, the facts must show a true emergency. Otherwise, they need to get a warrant.”

Lange v. California arose when Lange was charged with a DUI after an officer had stopped him inside his house. One October night in 2016, Lange was blasting loud music and honking his car horn with the windows down. That drew the attention of California Highway Patrol Officer Aaron Weikert, who began to pursue Lange.

Right before Lange entered his driveway, Weikert turned on his overhead lights, which Lange later said he didn’t see. Once Lange parked his car inside his garage, Weikert quickly entered Lange’s home to confront him. Weikert smelled alcohol on Lange’s breath, and forced him to do field sobriety tests, which Lange failed. 

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The state charged Lange with one misdemeanor count of driving under the influence. In response, Lange moved to suppress all evidence obtained after Weikert went inside his garage, arguing that entering his home without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights. 

Both a California superior court and appellate court ruled against Lange. The lower courts adopted the state’s argument that warrantless entry was always allowed when an officer was in “hot pursuit” of a misdemeanor suspect. Since Weikert had probable cause to arrest Lange after he didn’t pull over (a misdemeanor), Lange’s constitutional rights weren’t infringed when Weikert entered his home, the California courts concluded. 

Although the California Supreme Court refused to take Lange’s case, the U.S. Supreme Court did, ultimately handing him a unanimous victory. Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan flatly rejected the lower courts’ “categorical” rule that pursuing misdemeanants always justifies warrantless entry. Adopting such a rule “would cover lawbreakers of every type, including quite a few hard to think alarming.”

As Kagan noted, “misdemeanors run the gamut of seriousness” and can involve assault or domestic violence. But misdemeanors also cover a multitude of minor offenses, like littering on a public beach or “artificially coloring any live chicks [or] rabbits” in California. 

“We have no doubt that in a great many cases flight creates a need for police to act swiftly,” wrote Kagan. “But no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight poses such dangers.”

, Supreme Court Closes Fourth Amendment Loophole That Let Cops Enter Homes Without Warrants, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Carving out such a wide exception would run counter to decades of precedent, which has long centered the home as “the archetype of the privacy protection secured by the Fourth Amendment.” The Supreme Court has previously declared the home “first among equals” when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, while any exemptions to the warrant requirement must be “jealously and carefully drawn.”

Moreover, the Fourth Amendment “must provide at a minimum the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted.” Prior to the Founding, Kagan recounted that “the zealous and frequent repetition of the adage that a ‘man’s house is his castle’ made it abundantly clear that both in England and in the Colonies ‘the freedom of one’s house’ was one of the most vital elements of English liberty.” 

There was, however, a “fleeing felon” exception that generally permitted warrantless entry into the home. But at the time, felonies were “mostly reserved for crimes ‘punishable by death.’” “When it came to misdemeanors, flight alone was not enough” to justify a warrantless entry.

Lange v. California had an unusual line-up. Though the court unanimously sided with Lange, only the court’s liberal justices—Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor—as well as the three justices appointed by Trump—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—supported Kagan’s opinion in its entirety. 

Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, agreed with the judgement but wrote separately to argue that the court should consider “flight, not the underlying offense,” as an exigent circumstance “that on its own justifies warrantless entry into a home.” The majority’s opinion, the chief justice warned, could lead to “absurd and dangerous results” that jeopardize officer safety and enable the destruction of evidence. 

In response, Kagan critiqued the concurrence as “alarmism misplaced.” “The only cases in which we and the concurrence reach a different result are cases involving flight alone, without exigencies like the destruction of evidence, violence to others, or escape from the home,” Kagan wrote. She also found it “telling” that the chief justice “hardly talks about those ‘flight alone’ cases”:

“Apparently, it taxes even the concurrence to justify as an ‘exigency’ a warrantless entry based only on a misdemeanant’s prior retreat into his home—when the police officers do not reasonably believe anything harmful will happen in the time it takes to get a warrant.”

Taking a pragmatic view, Kavanaugh argued in a separate concurrence that “there is almost no daylight in practice between the court’s opinion and the chief justice’s opinion concurring in the judgment,” and any difference between the two “will be academic in most cases.”

“Cases of fleeing misdemeanants,” he wrote, “will almost always also involve a recognized exigent circumstance—such as a risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others—that will still justify warrantless entry into a home.” Kavanaugh also approvingly cited Lange’s attorney who acknowledged during oral argument that “nine times out of 10 or more,” police could still enter a home without a warrant to pursue a fleeing misdemeanant. 

In an unusual twist, the California Attorney General refused to defend the California court rulings and instead sided with Lange. 

“A person’s home is their castle. No matter where you live, that underlying principle has always been enshrined in our Constitution: Our homes are protected against unreasonable searches and seizures,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement shortly after Lange was handed down. “This is a safeguard that we must jealously defend. While there are important exceptions meant to serve public safety, our laws and policies must always strike a careful balance. I applaud the U.S. Supreme Court for doing exactly that in this decision.”

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