WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) – Police do not have unlimited power to enter a home without a warrant when pursuing a person suspected of a minor felony, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a case involving a Californian motorist driven from his home by an officer for honking his horn while listening to music.
By refusing to endorse a broad interpretation of police power, judges awarded a victory to driver Arthur Lange, who challenges his impaired driving conviction after the California Highway Patrol officer entered his garage warrantless and completed a field sobriety test. .
The court, in a 9-0 decision drafted by Liberal Judge Elena Kagan, referred the case to the California Court of Appeals. The judges rejected the lower court’s finding that warrants are not necessary in situations where the police are chasing, even if the alleged crime is minor.
“Leaking a suspicious offense doesn’t always justify warrantless entry into a house,” Kagan wrote.
“An officer must consider all of the circumstances in a prosecution case to determine if there is a law enforcement emergency,” Kagan added.
Although the judges were unanimous in rejecting the lower court’s decision, there was some disagreement among them over the law. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a separate opinion, joined by fellow Conservative Judge Samuel Alito, that police should be able to make an arrest when they are chasing someone, even if the suspect enter a house.
“The Constitution does not require this absurd and dangerous result. We must not impose it,” Roberts wrote.
Lange was confronted inside his garage by Officer Aaron Weikert in 2016. The ruling did not finally resolve whether the evidence from the field sobriety test can be used against Lange, who argued that it had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures. .
The ruling came at a time when police powers and the use of force are increasingly under scrutiny in the United States after several high-profile incidents in recent years involving law enforcement actions. Protests erupted in many cities over the past year against police brutality and racism.
After observing Lange driving and honking, Weikert started following him and intended to stop him for violating local noise restrictions, a minor violation that carries small fines, but did not immediately ignite the emergency lights of the police vehicle, according to documents filed in the case. .
Lange was already in his driveway when the officer caught up with him and activated his hazard lights. Weikert parked in the driveway as Lange drove his car into his garage. Lange later said he was unaware the officer had followed him.
The garage door was about to close when Weikert put his foot under the door, preventing it from closing.
Weikert said he smelled of alcohol and ordered Lange to take a field sobriety test. Lange was tried more than three times the legal limit and was charged with impaired driving (DUI) and noise violation.
Lower courts ruled against Lange, ruling the incident to be a “quick chase” that allowed warrantless entry.
Lange made a clear plea of the DUI offense and was sentenced to 30 days in prison and three years probation.
The California Court of Appeals in 2019 upheld Lange’s conviction. Lange then asked the Supreme Court to rule that police officers cannot evade the warrant requirement when chasing someone at their home when the underlying conduct constitutes a misdemeanor.
Under the Supreme Court precedent, officers can enter a home without a warrant while chasing a suspected criminal.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham