Fourth Amendment 'still technically a thing' as Supreme Court sides with driver followed home by cop

Fourth Amendment 'still technically a thing' as Supreme Court sides with driver followed home by cop
U.S. Supreme Court, 2021

In some good news for the day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a police officer who followed a driver into his garage over a minor traffic offense had no right to do so without a warrant. Arthur Lange was blasting music and honking his horn when he caught the attention of a highway patrol officer who started following him, the court stated in a synopsis included with its opinion. "Rather than stopping, Lange drove a short distance to his driveway and entered his attached garage," the court stated. "The officer followed Lange into the garage.

"He questioned Lange and, after observing signs of intoxication, put him through field sobriety tests. A later blood test showed that Lange's blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit."

The court continued:

The State charged Lange with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The Superior Court denied Lange's motion, and its appellate division affirmed. The California Court of Appeal also affirmed. It concluded that Lange's failure to pull over when the officer flashed his lights created probable cause to arrest Lange for the misdemeanor of failing to comply with a police signal. And it stated that Lange could not defeat an arrest begun in a public place by retreating into his home. The pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant, the court held, is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The California Supreme Court denied review.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, offered a different majority opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan. "The place to start is with our often-stated view of the constitutional interest at stake: the sanctity of a person's living space," Kagan wrote. She referenced the Fourth Amendment assuring Americans protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. "At the Amendment's 'very core,' we have said, 'stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion,'" Kagan wrote.

She later added "one important exception" that her peers Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh zeroed in on and that is for "for exigent circumstances." "It applies when 'the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable,'" Kagan wrote. She determined the "flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home."

"An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency," Kagan wrote. "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.

"But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so—even though the misdemeanant fled. Because the California Court of Appeal applied the categorical rule we reject today, we vacate its judgment and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

Thomas wrote that he agrees with the majority except where a contextual application of warrantless entry is applied. "The majority sets out a general rule requiring a case-by-case inquiry when an officer enters a home without a warrant in pursuit of a person suspected of committing a misdemeanor," Thomas wrote. "But history suggests several categorical exceptions to this rule. First, warrantless entry is categorically allowed when a person is arrested and escapes." Thomas added: "I also write to point out that even if the state courts on remand conclude that the officer's entry here was unlawful, the federal exclusionary rule does not require suppressing any evidence."


Kavanaugh agreed with Thomas and said in his view "there is almost no daylight in practice" between the Court's opinion and that of Thomas. Kavanaugh said the difference between the two will be "academic in most cases" because "cases of fleeing misdemeanants will almost always also involve a recognized exigent circumstance—such as a risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others—that will still justify warrantless entry into a home."

Only, it should never, especially when considering the very real possibility that a person of color is fleeing in fear of his life when a trooper decides to stop him for that broken tail light or improper use of a turn signal. As journalist Elie Mystal put it in a tweet: "Supreme Court generally agrees, somewhat grudgingly, that in some limited circumstances, the 4th Amendment is still technically a thing."

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