WASHINGTON – Arthur Lange was 100 feet from his driveway when the California patrol officer behind him flipped on his flashing lights. Rather than stop, Lange turned toward his Sonoma County home, pulled into his garage and closed the door.
What happened over the next few seconds prompted years of litigation and a case to be argued Wednesday at the Supreme Court with sweeping implications for police power.
As Lange’s garage door descended on that October night in 2016, Officer Aaron Weikert got out of his car and stuck his foot under it, triggering the sensor that sent it back up.
“Did you not see me behind you?” the officer asked Lange, who said he had not. As Lange spoke, the Weikert smelled alcohol on his breath. A test later revealed Lange’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit and he was charged with DUI.
The question at the heart of the exchange: Whether Weikert was on constitutionally shaky ground when he entered Lange’s garage without a warrant.
Police are generally required to have a warrant to enter someone’s home under the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable searches.” But courts have allowed exceptions when an officer is in “hot pursuit” of a suspect believed to have committed a felony. In Lange’s case, police could only point to his failure to stop, a misdemeanor.
Though the difference may seem academic, civil liberty groups say the case could vastly expand police powers because of the breadth of misdemeanor charges. Could a police officer cook up a minor offense to justify a chase and search? Misdemeanor crimes can be serious but they also include littering, jaywalking and defacing dollar bills.
Courts across the country have reached different answers to the question at issue in the case. Five state supreme courts have held a misdemeanor pursuit justifies a warrantless home entry, according to Lange’s lawyers, while three state courts and two federal appeals courts say the issue must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
“The courts are all over the place on this,” said Larry James, general counsel for the National Fraternal Order of Police, who filed a brief in the case supporting Weikert. “The question is, should the U.S. Supreme Court lay down the law of the land.”
Fourth Amendment questions have divided the Supreme Court in unusual ways, with liberal Justice Stephen Breyer occasionally joining conservatives and the late Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes siding with liberals. Justice Neil Gorsuch last fall called a ruling in Vermont allowing game wardens to peer inside a garage without a warrant an “error.”
Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump, was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both appointed by President Barack Obama.
Lange’s case comes to the court at a moment of tension between police and communities of color after the police killing last year of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. The incident, and others like it, prompted nationwide protests and some riots over the summer, forcing a national discussion about racism and police use of force.
One of those incidents was the 2020 shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, which occurred after police entered her Louisville, Ky., apartment during a drug investigation. Police had obtained a “no-knock” warrant, allowing them to conduct a search without notification. The city subsequently banned no-knock warrants.
Some observers said expanding the circumstances under which a police officer may enter a home without a warrant could exacerbate the fraught relationship.
“It wouldn’t open the door, it would open the flood gates to police entry into a home,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law professor who has written widely on the proliferation of misdemeanor crimes. “It would seem to be exactly the backward response to everything we have learned from George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.”
On the other hand, some advocates say allowing a suspect to dart into a home to avoid possible arrest creates another set of problems for police. Officers can’t always immediately determine whether a suspected drunk driver may be committing a felony or a misdemeanor, for instance, a distinction that can turn on factors such as blood-alcohol level, prior convictions or whether a child is in the car.
If Weikert had waited to obtain a warrant, could Lange have claimed he started drinking only after he got home? Or could he have waited out police long enough to sober up?
“Time degrades evidence,” said Alex Otte, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which advocates for a categorical exception to the warrant requirement in cases where police are in pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect. “Even if it is a true misdemeanor, they should still be forced to face the consequences of their potential deadly choice.”
The case came to the U.S. Supreme Court after the California Supreme Court declined to hear it, allowing a lower court’s ruling that sided with police to stand.
Though the California state appeals court ruling created the broad warrant exception for misdemeanor pursuit, the state of California itself isn’t defending that power for police. Attorneys for California argue that Weikert’s actions represented a good faith effort to adhere to current law in the state.
Instead, the Supreme Court appointed an attorney to defend the misdemeanor exception.
“There is nothing reasonable about allowing an offender to defeat a lawful public arrest by fleeing into a home,” the attorney, Amanda Rice, told the court. “That is true regardless of whether the underlying crime happens to be classified as a felony or a misdemeanor.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court to debate when police can conduct warrantless search