Wednesday’s hearing in the Supreme Court involves a single case. It focuses on the authority of police to enter a private home without a warrant authorizing entry. As usual, the audio (but not the video) portion of the hearing will be broadcast at c-span.org/supremecourt
Hearing, scheduled for one-hour, starts at 10 a.m.:
Lange v. California
Background: Of the 7,591 words in the U.S. Constitution (the basic document plus all of the amendments), probably none lends itself to such widely varying definitions as the word “unreasonable.” It appears only once, in the Fourth Amendment, which protects persons and houses from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
The notion of reasonableness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. It invokes some value judgment, but whose? In constitutional history, interpretation comes down to what judges (especially Justices of the Supreme Court) decide. One scholar has suggested that, in interpreting that word in the Fourth Amendment, judges have used “objective, subjective, utility-based, or custom-based standards.” That doesn’t clarify it very much.
Within the wide world of interpretation, one thing supposedly is clear, constitutionally: it is almost always unconstitutional for police to go into someone’s private home or apartment without a court’s advance approval (a search warrant). Note, however, that the sentence contains its own ambiguity: police “almost always” act unconstitutionally by going into a home on their own authority.
That ambiguity is reflected in the idea, well established in the law of the Fourth Amendment, that police may not always need a warrant to enter. Sometimes they can do so if there are “exigent circumstances,” such as when they are in “hot pursuit” of a dangerous suspect, or when they hear desperate cries coming from inside, or when they hear reliable signs of evidence (drugs, perhaps) being destroyed inside (the sound of a toilet flushing may not, by itself, be “exigent” enough, though). Of course, they do not need a warrant if the occupant of the house consents to their entry.
The Supreme Court has spent decades trying to clarify such exceptions. And it will be attempting to do that again on Wednesday, in the case of Lange v. California. Note that the case involves police entry into a garage, rather than into the living space itself. For Fourth Amendment purposes, the garage is entitled to as much privacy as the living space. Indeed, constitutional privilege covers the yard, too.
The case originated in Sonoma, Calif., on a late evening in October 2016. Arthur Gregory Lange was driving along, music blaring on his car radio and he was honking repeatedly. A local police officer, Aaron Weikert, put on his emergency lights in an attempt to pull Lange over. At that point, however, Lange was then close to home, so drove into his driveway, on into the garage. Lange started to close the garage door. The officer put his foot in front of a sensor that controlled the door, and it opened.
At that point, the officer entered the garage to question Lange. That was the moment that the privacy of the garage became a Fourth Amendment issue. Because the officer detected signs of alcohol use, he tested Lange; the blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
Lange was charged with two crimes that are misdemeanors (minor crimes) under California law: driving under the influence of alcohol, and playing his car radio too loudly. Lange sought to block the evidence that was derived from the officer’s entry into the garage, contending that the entry violated the Fourth Amendment so that evidence was tainted by the violation of Lange’s privacy.
As the case wound its way through California state courts, it resulted in a conclusion that Lange’s Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated, because the police officer entered the garage in “hot pursuit” of Lange after the misdemeanors had been committed. Under California court precedents, there is a flat rule: even if an individual has committed minor crimes, police may make a “hot pursuit” of that individual, and enter the home without a warrant.
Lange took the case on to the Supreme Court, arguing that there has long been a deep split among lower courts, with some applying the categorical approach followed in California, and others focusing on the specifics of the incident to determine if such an entry was justified. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.
After the state of California told the Court that it did not support the categorical approach, the Court chose a Detroit attorney to enter the case to defend that approach in opposition to Lange’s challenge. The Court frequently does that, to ensure that both sides of an issue are presented.
The question before the Court: If a police officer has a basis for believing that misdemeanor crimes have been committed, is that an “exigent circumstance” that always allows the officer to enter the private space of a home, without a warrant, to investigate?
Significance: Any time that the Supreme Court takes on a constitutional question, it potentially could make history. That is especially so when the difficulty of the issue is on clear display in a direct disagreement among lower courts on how to interpret a question. The Fourth Amendment, with that ambiguous word “unreasonable” so central a part of it, is a rich source of such disagreements.
There seems to be little debate over the view that, when a police officer is in “hot pursuit” of a person clearly suspected of a serious crime (that is, a felony), the Fourth Amendment does not demand a warrant to pursue the suspect on into a home. But the Lange case illustrates that there is nowhere near such an agreement when the suspected crime is a misdemeanor.
Lange’s lawyers have told the Court that the situation at issue in his case – police entry while pursuing someone suspected of a minor crime – is far more common day to day than pursuit of those suspected of felonies.
Nearly eight years ago, the Supreme Court recognized in a California case that lower courts were then split on the issue that Lange’s case raises npw. It decided that case without resolving the disagreement, leaving it to develop in the following years. It has now done so, with the categorical approach accepted in five state supreme courts, while that approach has been firmly rejected by two federal appeals courts and three state supreme courts.