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Brief # 167 – Civil Rights

Supreme Court Rules Against Warrantless Entry Into Home In Misdemeanor Cases

By Rod Maggay

June 29, 2021

Policy Summary

On June 23, 2021 the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Lange v. California. The case examined whether a warrantless entry into a home by a police officer to apprehend a fleeing misdemeanor suspect was permissible under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, paper, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” What this means is that law enforcement officers generally need to obtain a warrant prior to entering a person’s home without permission. While this is the general standard the law does provide exceptions to that rule. The exigent circumstances exception permits a law enforcement officer to enter a home for emergency situations that require official action and where there is no time to secure a warrant. Some common emergency scenarios which permit a warrantless entry by police officers is if there is a need to render emergency medical assistance or if there is a danger of destruction of evidence, like drugs.

In the Lange case, Arthur Lange was observed by police officers driving down the road with his windows down and loud music playing while he was consistently honking his horn. Highway patrol officers followed Mr. Lange and subsequently turned on their overhead lights to try and get Mr. Lange to pull over. However, Mr. Lange continued to his home and entered his garage. An officer followed Mr. Lange inside of his home where he questioned him and put Mr. Lange through a field – sobriety test which he failed. Mr. Lange was subsequently charged with a misdemeanor driving under the influence (DUI) and a misdemeanor noise infraction.

Mr. Lange tried to suppress all of the evidence obtained from his questioning and sobriety test but the Superior Court denied his motion which was later affirmed by the appellate division and the California Court of Appeal. The California Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sided with Arthur Lange and ended up vacating the California Court of Appeal decision in a unanimous judgment. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

This case helped reinforce what the Fourth Amendment stands for in terms of unreasonable searches. The Court even used the phrase “when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is the first among equals” to emphasize the right of a citizen to retreat into his own home and be free from unreasonable government intrusion.

While the case should have been an easy one to decide based on Court precedents that prohibited warrantless entry into a home except in exigent circumstances this case differed significantly because this case only involved a person fleeing into his home while committing a misdemeanor crime. The other cases previously decided by the Court all dealt with officers entering the home without a warrant while the persons were committing a felony. It may seem like a very minor difference but the difference in the two categories of crime can have significant consequences. This is important because arguments from an amicus curiae brief submitted to the court pushed to have the Court recognize a rule that any time a person is fleeing from law enforcement, officers should always be allowed warrantless entry into the person’s home based on emergency circumstances.

Justice Kagan pushed back on this and eloquently described how not every fleeing person who retreats into their home presents a threat especially when the crime being committed is a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are crimes usually categorized as minor and sometimes non – violent. It would be improper to have an all – encompassing rule that permits law enforcement officers wider powers to enter a person’s home any time a person flees regardless of the crime.

The very nature of the crime – misdemeanor – may not have the emergency situation that felonies do. It may very well be that there may be time to secure a warrant to enter the home in misdemeanor cases. What Justice Kagan’s opinion does here is not allowing an expansion of police powers to allow an officer to enter a fleeing person’s home whenever they please. A person’s home is too sacred to allow it to be violated so easily. The Fourth Amendment still prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of a person, their homes and their papers and that command still applies even in misdemeanor cases. The Supreme Court in this case gets that right. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – infopage on search and seizure issues.

Constitution Center – infopage with background and history of the Fourth Amendment.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.

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