The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Lange v. California to restrict the authority of the police to enter a person’s home without a warrant if the offense is minor.
Arthur Lange was driving in Sonoma County where an officer claimed he was playing loud music and honking the horn of his vehicle. The officer believed Lange to be in violation of noise ordinances and followed him home. The officer allegedly waited to turn on his lights until Lange was pulling into his driveway.
Lange entered his garage and began closing the door. The officer got out of the car and stuck his foot under the door to get it to re-open. The officer claimed to smell alcohol on Lange’s breath and subsequently arrested him for driving under the influence and a noise offense.
Lange sued over his arrest, saying that the officer had no right to enter his home without a warrant. A California superior court and appellate court ruled against Lange, holding that a warrantless entry is always allowed if a police officer is in hot pursuit. The California Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up the case, and in a complete turnabout, all nine justices agreed with Lange.
In writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan explained,
“The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home. An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency. On many occasions, the officer will have good reason to enter — to prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home. But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so — even though the misdemeanant fled.”
In detailing her reasoning, Kagan noted that British common law had afforded the home with strong protections against government intrusion and viewed it as one of the “most vital elements of liberty.”
Quoting from a British common law judgment, she noted, “‘To enter a man’s house’ without a proper warrant, Lord Chief Justice Pratt proclaimed in 1763, is to attack ‘the liberty of the subject’ and ‘destroy the liberty of the kingdom.’ That was the idea behind the Fourth Amendment.”
In May, the Court also ruled unanimously to prevent the extension of the “community caretaking” exemption to allow officers to enter a person’s home and seize their firearms without a warrant.
The Fourth Amendment protects,
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The Founding Fathers understood the importance of the right to privacy in a person’s home. The British had subjected the colonists to searches without proper justification. Without a person’s right to privacy in their own home, our republic becomes a police state.
Perhaps the officer had a reason for waiting until Lange arrived home to turn on his lights, but once at his home, the officer did not have the right to enter without a warrant.
As the Court ruled, there are times when an officer may have reason to enter without a warrant, such as if there is the threat of harm to a person inside. Suspecting someone of violating a noise ordinance, however, does not provide justification to violate a person’s constitutional right against an unreasonable breach of their Fourth Amendment rights.