Law

A Good Day for the Fourth Amendment

"We are not eager—more the reverse—to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant," declared Justice Kagan in Lange v. California.

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In 2019, a California appeals court said a police officer may always enter a suspect's home without a warrant if the officer is in "hot pursuit" and has probable cause to believe the suspect has committed a misdemeanor.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court gave that decision the benchslap it deserved. "We are not eager—more the reverse—to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant," declared Justice Elena Kagan in Lange v. California.

The case originated when a California Highway Patrol officer observed Arthur Gregory Lange repeatedly honking his horn and playing his car stereo at a loud volume, both of which are traffic infractions at worst. The officer followed Lange's car and switched on his overhead lights just a few seconds before Lange pulled into his own driveway. Lange, who said he never saw the officer's lights in his rearview mirror, entered his driveway and pulled into his garage. The officer parked, exited his vehicle, stuck his foot under the garage door to prevent it from closing, followed Lange in, and had him perform field sobriety tests, which ultimately led to a DUI charge.

The state has "argued that the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant always qualifies as an exigent circumstance authorizing a warrantless home entry," Kagan observed in her majority opinion, which was joined in full by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. But that position ran afoul of both SCOTUS precedent and the Fourth Amendment's common law roots.

"On many occasions, the officer will have good reason to enter—to prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home," Kagan wrote. "But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so—even though the misdemeanant fled."

The common law origins of the Fourth Amendment commanded the same result. "'To enter a man's house' without a proper warrant, Lord Chief Justice Pratt proclaimed in 1763, is to attack 'the liberty of the subject' and 'destroy the liberty of the kingdom,'" Kagan wrote, quoting from a venerable British common law judgment. "That was the idea behind the Fourth Amendment."

Writing in a concurrence that reads more like a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, denounced the majority's reasoning as "absurd and dangerous," "hopelessly indeterminate," and likely to impede necessary police work.

Fortunately, Roberts managed to attract just one other vote. The Fourth Amendment had a good day in court.