SCOTUS: I missed one

I missed a case being 9-0! Lange v. California.

Again, this one is pretty clear-cut. A police officer turned on his lights to pull over a driver. The driver (Lange) was almost home and pulled into his garage. Lange then tried to claim the officer doing a sobriety test in his garage was a warrantless search. So the question became does the fourth amendment protect someone “fleeing” categorically justify a warrantless search? Especially a misdemeanor?

The syllabus describes it thus: “The Fourth Amendment ordinarily requires that a law enforcement officer obtain a judicial warrant before entering a home without permission. But an officer may make a warrantless entry when “the exigencies of the situation,” considered in a case-specific way, create “a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.””

All of the justices voted the same, but most of the conservative men each had to give their own opinion… I wish I was kidding. Kagan (generally liberal) wrote the court opinion. Kavanaugh had to put in a concurring opinion (I am getting very tired of seeing him say he has his own damn opinion). Thomas has his opinion. Roberts has his opinion. and Alito has his opinion. All the conservative men had to say their own opinion….

Once again, I’m only going to read Kagan – the official court opinion. According to this, different courts have ruled that there has to be an urgent requirement (ie danger to a person) requiring a case-by-case review of whether it was appropriate and some courts have held that “fleeing” a misdemeanor (I’m putting that in quotes because Lange only technically “fled” by driving about 100 feet to his house) is categorically allowed.

This is where I find the supreme court cases fun – this argument came up because of a previous case – United States v. Santana where police officers saw Santana standing in the doorway of her home and told her to stop. She retreated into her house, they followed (they were there because they thought she was dealing drugs) and found heroine. Kagan wrote ” Santana did not establish any categorical rule—even one for fleeing felons.” (much less misdemeanors).

“This Court has held that when a minor offense alone is involved, police officers do not usually face the kind of emergency that can justify a warrantless home entry.” Another case Welsh was more similar to Lange – dealing with potential intoxication SCOTUS upheld that it was inappropriate for the police officer to enter without a warrant – despite the fact Welsh’s blood-alcohol level could drop to legal limits by the time the officers got a warrant. The offense is minor (not even jail time) and there is no urgent extraneous circumstance.

“Our Fourth Amendment precedents thus point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight. That approach will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry. When the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction
of evidence, or escape from the home—the police may act without waiting. And those circumstances, as described just above, include the flight itself.3 But the need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry, even absent a law enforcement emergency.”

Kagan then outlines there is even common law agreement. Felonies might be pursued, but misdemeanors…. not so much.

Now, this doesn’t overturn Lange entirely – it just remands the case back to California to follow this ruling rather than a categorical rule of “fleeing” allowing a search.

Now, personally – I do think that since Lange pulled into his garage as a “safe” location for the police to pull him over, a warrant is not needed. This is where a prosecutor might need to establish/argue whether he was “fleeing” the officer or merely locating a safe place to respond to the officer’s lights. I bet this won’t be the last case trying to narrow/affirm/define when a police officer needs a warrant.