Warrantless-Entry Tangle Faces High Court Unraveling

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether the belief alone that a person has committed a misdemeanor is enough basis for police to enter a home without a warrant.

The case involves Arthur Lange, of Sonoma, California, who was playing music loudly in his car while headed home in 2016. After observing Lange honking his horn, highway patrol officer Aaron Weikert followed from a distance, intending to initiate a traffic stop but not activating overhead lights or his siren.

It was only once Lange had clicked his garage door opener that Weikert activated his lights, pulling into the driveway behind Lange.

Before Lange’s garage door could roll down, Weikert stuck his foot underneath to reopen it and entered the residence.

Insisting that he could smell alcohol on Lange’s breath, Weikert demanded his driver’s license and registration. Lange was then arrested for driving under the influence — a charge to which he pleaded no contest when the courts refused to suppress the evidence obtained from his garage after the warrantless entry.

In affirming the conviction, the California Court of Appeal ruled that Lange’s driving of some 100 feet into his driveway while Weikert’s lights were active constituted probable cause of additional flight-related misdemeanors.

Though the court held that Weikert was in “hot pursuit,” Lange says this characterization would be more appropriately applied to a true emergency, not the investigation of minor offenses as was the case here.

In his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lange challenges the categorical warrant exception for misdemeanor pursuit, saying it violates precedent and common-low limits on warrantless home entries.

“It also yields unjustified results, allowing an officer investigating a minor offense to forcibly enter a home even where there is no real emergency — and even where, as here, the officer initially intends only to question a suspect or issue a citation,” the petition states.

Lange is represented by Brian Halligan Fletcher with the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Clinic. The attorney declined to be interviewed about the case Friday.

While the Supreme Court did not issue any comment about granting certiorari, as is its custom, some of the justices did parse police-search precedent Monday in an unrelated case.

Bovat v. Vermont involves nighttime deer hunting. In Vermont, where this is considered illegal, it’s called deer jacking.

Joined in the opinion by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Justice Neil Gorsuch writes that game wardens obtained their search warrant of Clyde Bovat’s property only after spending about 15 minutes outside his property gathering evidence. Specifically, after peering through a garage window, the officers said they saw what could be deer hair on the tailgate of Bovat’s truck.

Gorsuch calls it unclear how the Vermont Supreme Court could have ruled against Bovat with nary a mention of the 2013 precedent Florida v. Jardines, in which curtilage, the area immediately surrounding a home, was deemed protected by the Fourth Amendment.

“The Fourth Amendment hardly tolerates the sort of meandering search that took place here,” Gorsuch wrote, referring to Bovat. “The wardens violated the Constitution, and the warrant they received premised on the fruits of their unlawful search was thus tainted.”

Not going so far as to say Bovat’s case merited certiorari, however, Gorsuch noted “that understandable reasons exist for my colleagues’ decision to let this case go.”

“For one, it is unclear whether Jardines’s message about the protections due a home’s curtilage has so badly eluded other state or federal courts,” the opinion states. “For another, there might be reason to hope that, while Vermont missed Jardines in one deer-jacking case, its oversight will prove a stray mistake. But however all that may be, the error here remains worth highlighting to ensure it does not recur. … The Constitution’s historic protections for the sanctity of the home and its surroundings demand more respect from us all than was displayed here.”

Bovat is represented by Hogan Lovells attorney Kirti Datla.

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