Justice and Due Process

A Small Supreme Court Win for the Fourth Amendment

Can police follow you into your home and arrest you for a low-level crime without getting a warrant?

Before today, according to the California Court of Appeal, the answer was always yes.

Their decision stemmed from a 2019 case involving Arthur Lange who honked his horn and played loud music when passing by a highway patrol officer. (The audacity!) The officer followed Lange’s car and turned on his red-and-blue lights seconds before Lange pulled into his garage. For his part, Lange contended that he never saw the officer’s lights in his rearview mirror.

The officer put his foot under the garage door to prevent it from closing and entered the home to perform a warrantless search.

Prosecutors argued — and the California courts agreed — that even for misdemeanor crimes, this “hot pursuit” of a suspect should always allow a police officer to enter one’s home without a warrant.

But today, the US Supreme Court overruled this position. “We are not eager—more the reverse—to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the majority opinion. The justices wrote:

When the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—such as imminent harm to others, the police may act without waiting. [But] when the nature of the crime, the nature of the flight, and surrounding facts present no such exigency, officers must respect the sanctity of the home—which means they must get a warrant.

The Court’s decision merely rests on the idea that not all situations allow police officers to enter the home without a warrant — a small victory since the ruling notes that “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 if officers have enough time to get a warrant, they “must do so—even though the misdemeanant fled.” And that’s an important point, since here in Utah, for example, electronic warrants can be procured extremely quickly. Today’s ruling prevents the further erosion of the Fourth Amendment, but let’s be clear — there are a substantial number of existing and broad loopholes that the Court has been responsible for creating in years past.

While the Court’s ruling is praiseworthy in part, it should serve as a fresh reminder that privacy protections for one’s home (and much more, especially electronic devices) should be pursued at a state level, where legislators can elevate safeguards beyond the bottom-floor guarantee required by the US Supreme Court.