US Supreme Court appears inclined to expand warrantless searches

The justices were considering an appeal in a case where an officer followed a drunk driver into his garage without a warrant

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON — Hearing a case from Sonoma County, the U.S. Supreme Court seemed likely Wednesday to allow police who are pursuing a suspect, even for a minor crime, to enter a home without knocking or seeking a warrant.

The justices were considering an appeal by Arthur Lange, a real estate agent who was driving home on state Highway 12 in an unincorporated area of eastern Sonoma County one evening in October 2016 when an officer heard him honking his horn loudly, for no apparent reason, and decided to follow him. The officer did not turn on his light or siren, however, until Lange drove into a residential area, stopped in front of his home and pushed a button to open his garage door.

After Lange drove into his garage, the officer got out, put his foot under the door to keep it from closing and entered the garage, where he questioned Lange and smelled alcohol on his breath. Lange later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor drunken driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

State courts upheld his conviction, but the Supreme Court took his case to decide whether the officer should have sought a search warrant. Past rulings have allowed police to enter a home without a warrant in pursuit of a suspected felon, but the court has not decided whether the same rules apply to those suspected only of misdemeanors, punishable by months in jail rather than years in state prison.

"There are many non-threatening reasons why people sometimes step inside or continue into their garages when pursued by officers," Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford law professor representing Lange, told the justices — for example, teenagers who want their parents present or women afraid to stop on dark roads. "It is not too much to ask for officers to procure a warrant before breaching the Fourth Amendment's most sacrosanct space."

But Chief Justice John Roberts said prohibiting a warrantless entry in pursuit of a fleeing suspect would "put the police in a dangerous situation." Obtaining a warrant might give the suspect time to destroy evidence, he said, and an officer who knocked on the door might be met with a gun.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh added that "preventing escape" was the type of emergency that would justify entry into a home without a warrant.

Both sides in the case agreed that police do not need a warrant to pursue someone into a home in emergencies. Lawyers for the prosecution argued that cases of "hot pursuit," in which suspects knew or should have known they were being pursued but continued to flee, were the type of emergency that justified warrantless entry regardless of the crime.

[READ: Justifying a no-knock entry]

"Officers cannot be expected to classify offenses (as felonies or misdemeanors) in the midst of a chase," said attorney Amanda Rice, assigned to represent prosecutors after Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office sided largely with Lange. Rice said state courts found that Lange's case was a hot pursuit, even though Lange said he had not known the officer was following him.

Fisher and Samuel Harbourt, a lawyer from Becerra's office, both said police should have to show evidence of an emergency to pursue a misdemeanor suspect into a home without a warrant.

The alternative would allow entry "even for minor offenses like littering or loitering, whenever a suspect disobeys police and takes a few steps into his home," Harbourt said.

Justice Stephen Breyer appeared to agree, telling Rice it was "ridiculous" that police "can just get into your house when you went inside your house because you once sold a rabbit as a prize" in a lottery, a misdemeanor in California. But Breyer also noted that states have varying definitions of misdemeanors — in Massachusetts, they include reckless driving in which someone is killed — and suggested a suspect's failure to stop while being pursued could justify police entry into a home.

A ruling in Lange vs. California, 20-18, is due by the end of June.

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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