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Supreme Court rules for Sonoma motorist followed home by police

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled last week for a Sonoma Valley motorist who said a police officer violated his privacy rights by following him home and then into his garage, where he was given a ticket for drunken driving.

By a 9-0 vote, the justices on June 23 overturned his conviction and said the Fourth Amendment usually forbids the police from entering a driveway or a home unless it is a true emergency or they have a search warrant.

In Lange v. California, the high court reversed the opinion of California state judges who said police may follow a person if they are in “hot pursuit,” even if the suspect’s offense is a minor one that could yield a traffic ticket.

In this case, a CHP officer decided to follow Arthur Lange because he was playing loud music on his car radio.

Justice Elena Kagan said the case did not involve pursuing a fleeing felon from the scene of a major crime. Lange was charged with a misdemeanor.

“The need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry, even absent a law enforcement emergency,” she wrote. “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 that they must get a warrant,” she wrote.

Although all nine justices agreed with the outcome in Lange’s case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a partial dissent. They said police should have leeway to pursue a fleeing suspect, regardless of the nature of the crime.

Roberts said Wednesday’s ruling will prove confusing for the police. “It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule: ‘Police officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect,’” he wrote, quoting a 2011 ruling that upheld an officer’s pursuit of a drug suspect who fled into an apartment.

Lange’s case was different, however, because he did not know the officer was following him, and therefore was not a fleeing suspect.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said he agreed with the court’s ruling, but stressed its opinion “does not disturb the long-settled rule that pursuit of a fleeing felon is itself an exigent circumstance justifying warrantless entry into a home.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta applauded the ruling and said it “strengthens protections against warrantless entries into the home.”

Though Lange’s conviction for drunken driving was upheld by the California courts, the state Department of Justice refused to defend the outcome when the high court agreed to hear the case.

Instead, a state attorney argued that the state court’s “categorical” rule allowing police to follow a suspect into his home for even a minor offense was unconstitutional, the position adopted by the high court.

The case began in October 2016 when Lange, a retired real estate broker, was driving to his Sonoma Valley home and listening to loud music. He drew the attention of a CHP officer, who began following him.

A few seconds before Lange turned into his driveway, the officer said he turned on the flashing lights of his patrol car. He followed the motorist into his garage and questioned him. The officer smelled alcohol on his breath and wrote Lange a ticket for driving under the influence and for the “infraction of operating a vehicle’s sound system at excessive levels.”

In response, Lange, who has not responded to requests for comment from The Press Democrat, said the charges should be thrown out because the officer violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures” when he entered his driveway and garage without a search warrant.

Usually police may not enter private property unless they have a warrant or are responding to an emergency, including a so-called hot pursuit of a fleeing felon.

Prosecutors argued that because Lange failed to stop when the police car flashed its lights, the officer was justified in pursuing him into his garage.

A Superior Court judge and a California appeals court agreed. “Because the officer was in hot pursuit of a suspect whom he had probable cause to arrest, the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s driveway and garage were lawful,” the state court said.

In reversing the state appeals court, Kagan said “an officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency..”

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