Tuesday, October 20, 2020

SCOTUS will hear search warrant exception case

The U.S. Supreme Court added three new cases to their merits docket for the term, reported SCOTUSblog. The justices announced that they will weigh in on the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The justices denied review in another Fourth Amendment case, prompting a statement from Justice Neil Gorsuch, while Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the denial of review in a case involving the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Fourth Amendment generally requires police officers to get a warrant before entering a home. The Supreme Court has recognized an exception to that rule for emergencies, such as when the police are in hot pursuit of a suspect. In Lange v. California, the justices agreed to decide whether that exception applies when police are pursuing a suspect whom they believe committed a misdemeanor.

The question comes to the court in the case of Arthur Lange, a northern California man whom a California highway patrol officer followed to his home because he believed that Lange had violated state traffic laws by listening to loud music and honking his horn a few times. After Lange pulled into his garage, the officer – who had turned on his overhead lights but did not use his siren as Lange approached his house – entered the garage by putting his foot under the garage door to block it from closing. When he spoke to Lange, the officer said that he could smell alcohol on his breath, and Lange was charged with driving under the influence.

At his trial, Lange argued that the officer’s entry into his garage without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, so that the evidence obtained in the garage should be thrown out. The trial court rejected that argument, and a state appeals court affirmed that ruling and, eventually, his conviction. The California Court of Appeal also upheld his conviction, rebuffing Lange’s contention that the exception to the warrant requirement for a “hot pursuit” of a suspect should apply only in genuine emergencies, rather than when the police are investigating minor offenses. Instead, the court of appeal concluded, the warrantless entry did not violate the Constitution because the officer was in hot pursuit of Lange, whom he had probable cause to arrest for a misdemeanor.

Lange went to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to review the state court’s decision. The lower courts are “sharply divided” on the question of whether pursuits for misdemeanors justify a warrantless entry, Lange told the justices. And the California court’s rule, he added, would allow “officers investigating trivial offenses to invade the privacy of all occupants of a home even when no emergency prevents them from seeking a warrant.”

California agreed with Lange that the federal and state courts have reached different conclusions on the Fourth Amendment question presented by his case, but it told the justices that Lange’s case is not an appropriate one in which to reach that question because Lange’s DUI conviction should stand regardless of the outcome of this proceeding. But, the state continued, if the court were to grant review, California agrees with Lange that pursuits for misdemeanors do not always justify a warrantless entry; instead, the state suggested, courts should use a case-by-case approach to determine whether there is a genuine emergency.

The case will likely be scheduled for argument in February 2021 or later.

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