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The Supreme Court Wrestles With 'Police Chase' That Wasn't

The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving an officer who pursued a misdemeanor suspect into his home without a warrant.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving an officer who pursued a misdemeanor suspect into his home without a warrant.
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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a major case testing whether police can enter a home without a warrant when pursuing someone for a minor crime.

The case arises at a time when there are increased questions about police tactics in handling minor crimes that can escalate into major confrontations with Black and brown suspects.

Wednesday's case, however, involved an older white man. Arthur Lange, a retired real estate broker, was driving through a rural area in Sonoma, Calif., late at night, playing loud music and at one point honking his horn several times.

The noise attracted the attention of a California highway patrol officer, who began following Lange, believing he was violating a noise ordinance. When the motorist slowed to enter his driveway, the officer flipped on his flashing lights.

Lange, who later said he didn't notice the police car at all, drove into his attached garage, and the officer, in pursuit, exited his vehicle and stuck his foot under the closing garage door sensor, forcing the door to reopen so that he could enter. The officer had no warrant. But once inside, he smelled liquor on Lange's breath and arrested him — both for the noise violation as well as driving under the influence.

Lange appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that the officer had no right to enter his home without a warrant and that the DUI evidence had been illegally obtained.

The Supreme Court has long held that police may conduct a warrantless search when pursuing a fleeing felon under the doctrine of "hot pursuit." But are police free to do the same when pursuing someone suspected of a minor offense like playing loud music?

That was the tricky question the justices wrestled with.

Stanford Law professor Jeffrey Fisher, representing Lang, argued there was no justification in this or other similar cases for a warrantless entry into a home. Indeed, he said, the officer could simply have knocked on the door. Chief Justice John Roberts vigorously objected.

"I would expect that to be a terribly dangerous situation," Roberts declared. "If you go right up to the door and knock, there's no reason to you shouldn't be concerned that he might swing the door open and have a gun."

One possible solution would treat hot-pursuit cases differently, depending on whether they involve felonies or misdemeanors. But Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer said that would be problematic. Breyer pointed out that some states classify serious crimes — like assault — as misdemeanors.

"In Massachusetts, if in fact [a suspect] has beaten up into a bloody pulp four people, you cannot just automatically 'hotly pursue' them into the house. But in California, you can, because it's a felony," Breyer observed.

But even the State of California, which defended Lange's arrest in the lower courts, wasn't keen to defend a hard and fast rule that would allow a warrantless intrusion into the home for minor crimes.

So, the Supreme Court appointed lawyer Amanda Rice, who once clerked for Justice Elena Kagan, to argue that position. She fulfilled that duty, arguing that the justification for pursuing Lange was his attempt to evade arrest. That, she contended, is the kind of bright line rule that police can easily follow.

Justice Samuel Alito wasn't buying it.

"Looking at this video, I see no attempt to avoid arrest. I see somebody who may well have not even noticed these lights and simply proceeded into his own garage," he said.

Justice Breyer found the bright line argument troublesome, too. "If we take your view, then it seems your home isn't a castle for the most trivial things," he said.

The hot-pursuit doctrine predates the Founding era, but back then, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett Barrett noted, the list of felonies was short — only nine, in fact — and, as Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out, all "were all punished by the death penalty."

When the founding fathers put the requirement for a warrant into the Bill of Rights, Gorsuch added, they were especially concerned about the overuse of general warrants used by the British to justify a search for anything and everything. But today, "we live in a world in which everything has been criminalized," he said. "Some professors have even opined that there's not an American alive who hasn't committed a felony under some state law."

"Why doesn't it make sense," Gorsuch asked, " to retreat back to the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment," which "generally says that get to go into a home without a warrant [only] if the officer sees a violent action or something that's likely to lead to imminent violence."

With both liberals and conservatives clearly conflicted at Wednesday's argument, it's anyone's guess how the court will resolve the issue.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.