July 7, 2022

News West

West Coast News Network

Supreme Court divided on search of Californian’s home

The case of a Northern California motorist who drove home one night playing loud music on his radio and drawing the notice of a Highway Patrol officer could establish an important precedent on the powers of the police and the privacy rights of homeowners.

The Supreme Court heard an appeal Wednesday from Arthur Lange, the Sonoma County man who was followed home and then into his garage by the officer, who then gave him a citation for driving under the influence.

At issue in Lange vs. California is whether the police may pursue people into their homes or apartments to question them about a minor crime.

Lange’s case fell under the “hot pursuit” exception. The officer who followed Lange’s car onto his residential street said he had reason to question the driver for a “noise infraction.” About four seconds before Lange turned into his driveway, the officer said he put on his red flashing lights, which meant the motorist should stop.

Lawyers from Stanford Law School, representing Lange, urged the court to put limits on the powers of the police and to rule officers need evidence of a true danger or a felony crime before they enter private property without a search warrant.

But the justices sounded mostly skeptical of imposing a limitation on police as they pursue suspects, particularly those who do not stop.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said a police officer usually would not know exactly what crime prompted a suspect to flee.

“The person who is being chased should stop,” added Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

However, two conservative justices — Neil M. Gorsuch and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — questioned giving the police broad power to enter homes, particularly in cases like Lange’s. “There was no chase here,” Alito said. “He simply proceeded into his own garage.”

The 4th Amendment forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and in the past, the Supreme Court has said police generally may not go into a residence or the private area near a house without a search warrant. There are exceptions in emergencies where lives may be in danger or if an officer in is in “hot pursuit” of a crime suspect.

Lange, who retired to Sonoma after a career in commercial real estate, challenged his drunk driving citation on the grounds that the evidence against him arose from an unconstitutional search. He lost before a Superior Court judge and a California appeals court, which ruled police have broad authority to enter private property if they are pursuing someone who fled and refused an officer’s command to stop, regardless of the nature of the crime.

His Stanford lawyers urged the court to reject that constitutional rule and not accord “police officers discretion to forcibly enter private dwellings without a warrant based on a vast array of minor offenses, even when there is no real emergency — indeed, even when they do not intend to arrest at all.”

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Lange’s appeal, the California Department of Justice refused to defend the broad rule adopted by the California state courts. The justices then appointed an attorney to defend the search and questioning of the motorist.

Amanda Rice, the appointed attorney, and Justice Department lawyer Erica Ross urged the court to rule that an officer’s “hot pursuit” of a suspect is always reasonable even if the suspect flees into the privacy of a home.

That may have gone too far for Roberts, who said that if a few teenagers were drinking beer and fled when a policy officer spotted them, that would not justify the officer pursuing them into their parent’s home.

When the Stanford lawyers appealed Lange’s case, they pointed out that courts across the country were divided on whether police may enter homes to question someone who may have committed a misdemeanor offense.

This question over the constitutional limits on the power of police to enter private property may have gone unresolved because of the much-disputed doctrine of “qualified immunity.” This rule has been used to shield police from being sued if their questionable actions have not been explicitly prohibited under the law or past court rulings.

In 2013, the high court threw out a lawsuit brought by a San Diego-area woman who was injured when a police officer pushed open a wooden fence to chase a young man into her yard. “We do not express any view” on whether the officer’s pursuit was constitutional, the court said in Stanton vs. Syms, but nonetheless ruled the homeowner may not sue him because the law was unclear.

The justices will confer on Friday to cast their votes in the Lange case, and they are likely to issue a decision by the end of June.

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