Friday, June 25, 2021

Unanimous SCOTUS strikes warrantless entry of home for minor offense

The Supreme Court upheld an individual’s right to private property against government intrusion in two very different California cases, underscoring the libertarian leanings of the more conservative majority, reported the Los Angeles Times.

The decisions — one unanimous and the other ideologically split — also bolstered privacy rights.

In one case, the justices sided with a California motorist who complained when a police officer followed him without a warrant into his home garage, where he was questioned and ticketed for drunk driving.

The justices, both conservative and liberal, have long looked skeptically at police searches of homes, and the unanimous ruling for the California driver arrested in his garage provided a chance to strengthen that position.

The court ruled for a retired Sonoma County real estate broker who was followed home by a California Highway Patrol officer. The officer noticed the man was playing loud music on his car radio.

The officer turned on the flashing lights of his patrol car just as Arthur Lange pulled into his driveway. The officer followed Lange into his garage, questioned him and then wrote him a ticket for drunk driving. Lange appealed, arguing his right to privacy had been violated.

The justices set aside his conviction and said the 4th Amendment usually forbids the police to enter a driveway or a home unless it is a true emergency or they have a search warrant.

Justice Elena Kagan noted that the case did not involve pursuing a felon fleeing from the scene of a major crime. Lange was charged with a misdemeanor.

“The need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry, even absent a law enforcement emergency,” she wrote. “When the nature of the crime, the nature of the flight, and surrounding facts present no such exigency, officers must respect the sanctity of the home — which means that they must get a warrant,” she wrote.

Although all nine justices agreed with the outcome in Lange’s case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a partial dissent. They said police should have leeway to pursue a fleeing suspect, regardless of the nature of the crime.

Roberts said Wednesday’s ruling will prove confusing for the police. “It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule: ‘Police officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect,’” he wrote, quoting a 2011 ruling that upheld an officer’s pursuit of a drug suspect who fled into an apartment.

Lange’s case was different, however, because he did not know the officer was following him and, therefore, was not a fleeing suspect.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said he agreed with the court’s ruling but stressed that its opinion “does not disturb the long-settled rule that pursuit of a fleeing felon is itself an exigent circumstance justifying warrantless entry into a home.”

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta applauded the ruling and said it “strengthens protections against warrantless entries into the home.”

A Superior Court judge and a California appeals court had ruled for the police and upheld the search because the officer had grounds to stop and question the motorist.

“Because the officer was in hot pursuit of a suspect whom he had probable cause to arrest, the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s driveway and garage were lawful,” the state court said.

Kagan and the high court disagreed, saying there is no “law enforcement emergency.” The “constitutional interest at stake is the sanctity of a person’s living space,” she said. “When it comes to the 4th Amendment, the home is first among equals.”

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