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High Court Punts Fourth Amendment Case Over Whether Minor Charges Were Enough To Enter Home

United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court has decided NOT to decide a Fourth Amendment case over whether a driver’s loud music, horn honking, and four second delay in stopping for a cop was enough - or not - to enter his garage and therefore his home without a warrant.

It was hoped the case of Lange v. California would settle the legal question of just how minor an offense can be for police to enter a person’s home without a warrant. Instead, the high court has opted to kick it back to California’s courts.

The United States Supreme Court said that because the way the case was decided in California was wrong - that a police officer can always chase a fleeing suspect into their home. The court said it has never been categorical in that way, saying each case needs to be decided individually based on reasonableness - the test of the Fourth Amendment.

So, the court said California courts need to look at the case again. The state’s courts thought the so-called ‘hot pursuit’ doctrine was so clear it’s own state Supreme Court didn’t even need to look at this case.

The legal question at issue was whether minor traffic violations - and a misdemeanor of supposedly failing to stop (Lange was four seconds away from his home when the following officer stopped him) were sufficient justification to pursue someone into their home without first getting a warrant.

Motorist Arthur Lange, a northern California man, was followed in his vehicle by a police officer because he believed that Lange had violated state traffic laws by listening to loud music and honking his horn a few times. The officer put in his lights, but Mr. Lange went to his home and went into his garage, but the officer then ‘entered‘ Mr. Lange’s home when he put his foot under the garage door to stop it from closing.

During the interaction that followed, the officer could smell alcohol on Mr. Lange’s breath. Mr. Lange was arrested for driving under the influence, and later convicted. He tried to suppress what happened but all courts said a warrant was not required, as Mr. Lange contended. Every California court that heard the issue said the entry was justified.

The need for a warrant to enter a person’s home is supposed to be the default under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which has been weakened over time by a Swiss Cheese of exceptions. One of them is when officers are in ‘hot pursuit’ of a suspect.

The main issue is just how minor a violation of law can be to allow a police officer to be able to invade the privacy of a person’s home without a warrant under this doctrine of ‘hot pursuit.’ The United States Supreme Court then ‘granted certiorari’.

If California’s courts whiff on their analysis, expect it to come back to SCOTUS.


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