Supreme Court hears California DUI case pitting the Fourth Amendment against public safety

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A California man took his challenge to a DUI arrest to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, arguing police violated his privacy rights when they followed his car home and arrested him inside his garage.

Arthur Lange‘s driving under the influence charge and other traffic citations were misdemeanors, his lawyer told the high court, faulting police for barging into a man’s home over a minor infraction and without a search warrant.

“The solution has always been the warrant. That has been the solution that gives people security in their home,” said the lawyer, Jeffrey Fisher.

The case pits the Fourth Amendment right to privacy in the home against the interest of public safety in capturing fleeing suspects.

The legal battle began in 2016. Mr. Lange was driving home one evening, blaring his music and honking the horn. Both are considered traffic violations in California.

An officer followed Mr. Lange for a while without sounding his siren or lights. Once Mr. Lange turned onto his residential street, the officer turned on the flashing lights — but no siren — as Mr. Lange entered his driveway.

Mr. Lange, who says he didn’t see the officer pursuing him, pulled into the garage and attempted to close the door. The officer got out of the cruiser and used his foot to trip a sensor that stopped the garage door from closing.

“Did you not see me behind you?” the officer asked at the time. Mr. Lange responded that he had not.

A blood-alcohol test taken after the officer smelled alcohol on Mr. Lange showed he was more than three times over the legal limit.

He was charged with driving while under the influence and operating a vehicle at excessive sound levels. Mr. Lange moved to suppress the evidence related to the DUI, saying it violated the Fourth Amendment since there was no warrant.

The state contended that the officer had probable cause to arrest Mr. Lange and the hot pursuit created an exigent circumstance that justified a warrantless entry to the house.

The lower courts agreed. Mr. Lange took the legal battle to civil court as the criminal case was pending. The civil court judge sided with Mr. Lange.

A California appeals court later upheld his conviction, prompting Mr. Lange to take the case to the high court.

A majority of the justices seemed skeptical of setting different rules for when an officer can enter a home without a warrant based on the type of crime a fleeing suspect committed.

Mr. Fisher suggested the officer could have knocked or obtained a warrant before entry.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. knocked down those suggestions. He said it could be dangerous for the police and take too much time, giving a suspect a chance to destroy evidence or arm himself.

“I think your options really put the police in a dangerous situation,” Chief Justice Roberts said.

The state of California did not oppose Mr. Lange‘s argument before the justices.

Instead, Samuel Harbourt, deputy solicitor general of California, told the justices that the state attorney general could suspend the hot pursuit exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment when dealing with misdemeanors.

“Well, if the attorney general could do that, I really don’t understand why you are here,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said.

To argue on behalf of warrantless entries during a hot pursuit, the high court appointed lawyer Amanda Rice, who said a suspect who takes a police chase inside his home forfeits any privacy interests.

“A suspect can always avoid any intrusion into a home by deciding not to flee inside, particularly in these sorts of silly cases,” she said.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared open to the claim of Fourth Amendment protection.

“This is a tough case,” Justice Breyer said. “It seems ridiculous that the home isn’t your castle for terribly minor things.”

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