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SCOTUS Hears Case On Whether Police Can Enter Homes For Misdemeanors Without Warrants

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's turn to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices heard arguments today in a major case testing whether police can enter a home without a warrant when pursuing someone for a minor crime. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Late one night in 2016, Arthur Lange was driving home, playing loud music in his car and at one point honking his horn several times. The California Highway Patrol officer, believing Lange was violating a noise ordinance, followed him. And when the motorist slowed to enter his driveway, the cop put on his flashing lights. Lange, who later said he didn't notice the police car at all, drove into his garage. The officer in pursuit got out of his car and put his foot under the closing garage door sensor to force the door back open. He had no warrant to enter the home or its attached garage, but once inside, he smelled liquor on Lange's breath and arrested him not only for the noise violation but for driving under the influence.

Lange appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, contending that the officer had no right to enter his home without a warrant and that the DUI evidence had been illegally obtained. The Supreme Court has long held that police may conduct a warrantless search when pursuing a fleeing felon. But are police free to do the same thing when pursuing someone suspected of a minor offense like playing loud music? That was the tricky question the justices wrestled with today.

Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, representing Lange, argued that there was no justification in this or other similar cases for a warrantless entry into a home. Indeed, he said, the officer could simply have knocked on the door. Chief Justice Roberts vigorously objected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: I would expect that would be a terribly dangerous situation. And, you know, if you go right up to the door and knock, there's no reason to - you shouldn't be concerned that he might swing the door open and have a gun.

TOTENBERG: Justices Sotomayor and Breyer noted that the problem with trying to separate misdemeanors from felonies is that some states classify pretty serious crimes like assault as misdemeanors. Even California in this case didn't want to defend a hard and fast rule allowing hot pursuit into the home for minor crimes, so the Supreme Court had to appoint a lawyer to argue that position. Amanda Rice fulfilled that duty, arguing that the justification for pursuing Lange was his attempt to evade arrest. That, she contended, is the kind of bright line rule that police can easily follow. Justice Alito wasn't buying it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMUEL ALITO: And I will tell you, looking at this video, I see no attempts to avoid arrest. I see somebody who may well have not even noticed these lights and simply proceeded into his own garage.

TOTENBERG: Justice Breyer found the bright line argument problematic, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALITO: If we take your view, then it seems like the home isn't the castle at all for the most trivial of things.

TOTENBERG: And Justice Gorsuch questioned the whole idea of hot pursuit in most cases, noting that when the Founding Fathers put the requirement for a warrant into the Bill of Rights, they were especially concerned about the overuse of general warrants used by the British to justify a search for anything and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL GORSUCH: We live in a world in which everything has been criminalized. And some professors have even opined that there's not an American alive who hasn't committed a felony. In a world like that, why doesn't it make sense to retreat back to the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which generally says that you get to go into a home without a warrant if the officer sees a violent action or something that's likely to lead to imminent violence?

TOTENBERG: With both liberals and conservatives clearly conflicted on today's question, it's anyone's guess how the court will resolve the issue.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.