Court Battles

Supreme Court weighs police power to conduct warrantless searches

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over whether the Constitution permits police to carry out warrantless searches of people suspected of fleeing law enforcement after committing minor offenses.

The case, which centers a California officer’s entry into a suspect’s garage without a search warrant, could see the justices strike a new balance between police power and restraints on government intrusions into the home or other private property.

The court heard from four different parties to the lawsuit, each of whom offered a different take on the thorny question of which circumstances justify an officer’s decision to sidestep the Fourth Amendment’s general requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search.

“Well, I mean, this is a tough case,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the court’s more liberal members. He described the dispute as teeing up a “cruel trilemma” of several rules that the court has the option to adopt.

The case arose from a 2016 encounter late one evening in Sonoma, Calif., between motorist Arthur Lange and officer Aaron Weikert, a highway patrolman. Weikert spotted Lange driving his station wagon with the windows rolled down and loud music playing, and observed Lange honking his horn several times for no apparent reason.

The officer began to follow Lange, intending to pull him over for a misdemeanor noise infraction. Weikert trailed Lange to his home, activating his squad car’s overhead lights as Lange approached his driveway.

Lange, who says he did not see the officer, parked in his garage and began to close the door. Weikert exited his patrol car and stuck his foot under the lowering garage door, forcing it to reopen. He then walked into Lange’s garage.

The officer said he smelled alcohol and conducted a sobriety test. Lange’s blood-alcohol level was found to be more than three times the legal limit. He was charged with driving under the influence and his license was suspended.

Lange filed a lawsuit requesting that the DUI charge be dismissed. He argued that the officer’s entry into his garage without first securing a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and that any evidence Weikert gleaned from the illegal search should be tossed.

The California courts disagreed and ultimately upheld Lange’s conviction. They ruled that Weikert was justified in forgoing a warrant in order to follow Lange into his garage. The reason: Weikert had probable cause to arrest Lange for failing to stop after the officer activated his overhead lights, a misdemeanor offense of disobeying a police order.

The officer’s entry to Lange’s property was excused from the Constitution’s warrant requirement, the California courts said, because Weikert had been in close pursuit of a suspect believed to be in the act of fleeing.

Lange appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the so-called hot pursuit exception to the Fourth Amendment should apply only in cases of suspected felonies, not minor offenses. The California attorney general’s office largely embraced Lange’s position before the justices.

Jeffrey Fisher, who represented Lange, told the court on Wednesday that his client’s actions did not justify the officer’s warrantless entry into the garage. He argued that Weikert could have simply knocked on Lange’s door or sought a warrant.

“The governmental interest in investigating minor offenses is not always or even usually strong enough to support home entries unsanctioned by judicial officers,” Fisher said.

The justices tapped an outside lawyer, Amanda Rice of the law firm Jones Day, to argue against Lange in favor of a broader exception to the warrant requirement, a position that was also supported by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tags Constitution Fourth Amendment Misdemeanor Stephen Breyer

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