High Court Grapples With Need for Warrant After Errant Horn Honk

Officials and civil rights experts are divided as to whether police can enter a home without a warrant, regardless of the offense, while in hot pursuit.

(Image by Michael Kaucher from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Holding arguments in a case where what happened is about as strange as any hypothetical, Justice Stephen Breyer still provided plenty of seemingly ridiculous reasons in which the law might let a police officer enter someone’s home without a warrant.

How about if California law prevents you from selling or giving away a rabbit for a lottery prize? 

“You can think of about 50 of those when you start to get into misdemeanors,” Breyer said Wednesday. “It seems like your home isn’t your castle for terribly minor things.”  

On the other hand, Breyer said, “we lose the benefits of a bright line where hot pursuit is really serving an important purpose.” 

The real case began in Sonoma County last year, when California Highway Patrol Officer Aaron Weikert followed Arthur Lange after noticing that he was loudly playing music and honking his horn. When the officer turned on his lights to pull Lange over, Lange was turning up his driveway to enter his garage. 

About four seconds lapsed from the time that Weikert turned on his lights to the time that Lange turned up his driveway to enter his garage, court documents say. Weikert followed Lange and used his foot to keep the garage door from closing.

When Lange registered three times the legal limit for blood-alcohol content on an ensuing field sobriety test which, Lange charged him with driving under the influence and a traffic infraction, to boot, for the loud music.

“The governmental interest in investigating minor offenses is not strong enough for home entries unsanctioned by judicial officers,” Lange’s attorney, Jeffrey L. Fisher, told the high court Wednesday.

Though lower courts ruled that the search met an exception to warrant requirements under the Fourth Amendment, Fisher said the law should distinguish between cases like his client’s and a genuine emergency when there is no time to get a warrant.

Fisher also listed off for the court some of the many reasons why someone might retreat to their home. 

“How do we deal with people who are frightened, confused or distrustful?” asked Fisher, who is with the Stanford Law School. “The solution has always been the warrant, knowing that the police officer is proceeding within the law.”

In an amicus brief on Lange’s behalf, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers pointed to some 150 instances where a police officer entered a home unwarranted in pursuit of suspected misdemeanors, some for very trivial reasons, like urinating in public or driving with a broken headlight. 

In many of these instances, the attorneys said, property was damaged or either the police officer, the pursued or a resident of the home wound up injured or dead. Their brief says warrantless entry creates an environment where police face “difficult, split-second decisions” about the use of force. 

But in a brief for the government, court-appointed amicus attorney Amanda K. Rice says Lange’s challenge is doomed by United States v. Santana, a1976ruling that backed the police pursuit of a suspected drug dealer into her home.

“Although the drug-dealing offense in Santana happened to be a felony … the court’s ruling turned neither on the classification of that offense nor on whether other exigent circumstances were present,” Rice wrote. “Instead, the court made clear that hot pursuit was itself ‘sufficient to justify the warrantless entry into a house.’”

Rice argued that there should be a categorical rule allowing warrantless home entry during “hot pursuit,” and not on the basis of whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony. 

For the justices at Wednesday’s hearing, however, several voiced concern about how the rule would play out in states with very different criminal laws. 

“It doesn’t define whether conduct is violent or dangerous,” Justice Elena Kagan said, speaking to the difference between misdemeanors and felonies. “That seems more relevant. Most domestic violence laws are misdemeanors. White collar fraud are felonies. That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.”

Fisher said that a categorical exception would ignore distinctions between the wide range of misdemeanors, allowing police officers to pursue teenagers breaking curfew in the same way they pursue an armed robber. 

“I think the reason to resist leaning too hard on a special category of hot pursuit is it puts a lot of pressure on exactly what would constitute a hot pursuit, and what is hot,” Fisher said. “We are asking the officers to do what they do all of the time. The categorical rule would just complicate matters.” 

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