Court at a Crossroads: Lange v. California Raises Fourth Amendment Concerns

by Jonah Levine

What You Can Do

  1. Donate to the ACLU, who consistently files amicus briefs in support of Fourth Amendment rights.
  2. Educate yourself on your Fourth Amendment rights.,Oath%20or%20affirmation%2C%20and%20particularly
  3. Research any local judicial elections in your area, and find your candidates’ positions on the Fourth Amendment

Pursuing their persistent interest in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the Supreme Court held oral arguments this past February on Lange v. California. The case concerns a 2016 DUI charge against Arthur Lange, who was tailed home and confronted in his garage by a highway patrolman. This ostensibly routine charge raises a critical constitutional question: does law enforcement have the right to pursue an individual suspected of a misdemeanor into their home without a warrant?

Lange’s saga began one Friday evening in Sonoma County, California as he journeyed home from a night of drinking. Blasting music and blaring his horn, Lange attracted the attention of a highway patrolman. The officer tailed him surreptitiously for most of the ride, only flashing his lights when Lange paused to activate his garage door. Sliding his foot beneath the shuttering garage door, the officer entered Lange’s garage and asked whether he had noticed the lights. Lange replied he had not, but the officer smelled alcohol off his breath. Lange took a blood-alcohol test and was subsequently charged with a DUI. [1] 

In trial court, Lange contended that the officer’s entrance into his garage violated the Fourth Amendment, our constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant. The amendment itself was born out of colonists’ animosity towards British tax collectors, who were given broad legal discretion to intrude into colonists’ homes. The founders championed Sir Edward Coke’s 1604 legal maxim “the house to every one is to him as his castle and fortress.” Ratifying the amendment, the founders provided each home with fortress-like protections to privacy in the form of legal barriers against intrusion. The amendment has broader applications, barring warrantless searches into everything from suitcases to cell phones, but protections for the home are often seen as the amendment’s primary function. [2]

With the home at the heart of Fourth Amendment protections, it feels intuitive to call the officer’s intrusion into Lange’s garage a violation. Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, however, is not so cut and dry. Over time, the Supreme Court has conceded some exceptions to Fourth Amendment protections. One especially pertinent exception allows police to bypass warrant requirements under “exigent circumstances,” when physical danger or destruction of evidence is imminent. [3] The Supreme Court has applied this exemption to officers following suspected felons into their homes, but has not specified whether it extends to officers pursuing suspects of misdemeanors, as exemplified in Lange’s case. With their coming ruling Lange v. California, the Court must clarify this question.

The oral argument held in February gave both sides an opportunity to expound their arguments. The ideological “sides,” however, do not fall neatly along the lines of plaintiff and defendant. Both Lange and the state of California argued against establishing a Fourth amendment exception allowing police to pursue suspects of a misdemeanor into their homes. The Court therefore appointed attorney Amanda Rice as an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, to represent the opposing position. Rice supported her argument in favor of a Fourth Amendment exception with the 1976 precedent United States v. Santana, a drug-related case which stipulated that an arrest cannot be circumvented when the suspect retreats into their home. While Santana involved a felony, Rice asserted that the case’s underlying rationale still applies. [1] On the contrary, Lange and the State of California stressed the grim consequences of allowing such an exception. Misdemeanors comprise roughly 80% of arrests. [4] If police were given full clearance to follow a suspect into their home on suspicion of anything from traffic violations to possession of marijuana, many individuals’ sense of security within their home would be diminished. The ruling could be especially harmful for the safety of people of color, who face disproportionately high rates of both misdemeanor charges and police violence. Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard law professor who joined an amicus brief for this case, warned of grave implications: “add warrantless misdemeanor pursuits into the home to ‘driving while Black,’ and you have just ratcheted up the problem of racially disproportionate policing and invading Black privacy.” [1]

During oral arguments, presiding justices were hesitant to frame the debate on Fourth Amendment exceptions over the distinction between a misdemeanor and a felony. Justice Breyer noted that different states have different laws defining which crimes are misdemeanors and felonies. Therefore, any rules created by the Court along these lines would have varying implications across the country. Justice Kagan suggested that it may be more worthwhile to consider Fourth Amendment exceptions based on whether the supposed crime was violent. For example, it could be hindering to prohibit police from following someone suspected of misdemeanor-level domestic violence into their home while allowing police to follow someone suspected of felony-level tax evasion. [5] It appears unlikely that the Court will articulate any bright line rule based on a misdemeanor/felony distinction. Still, they may craft a more ambiguous rule for Fourth Amendment exceptions, perhaps basing it off of a different criterion, such as a violent or nonviolent crime distinction. The ruling is slated for the Court’s October term.

With the coming ruling of Lange v. California, the Court must reckon with two warring ideologies that find themselves at the center of every Fourth Amendment debate. One is steadfastly committed to preserving the protections of personal security granted to us in the Bill of Rights. The other is willing to put aside some degree of individual security in order to grant law enforcement greater efficacy in collecting evidence and making arrests. The conflict over a 4th amendment exemption for misdemeanor pursuits is merely the latest iteration of this ideological debate. With Lange v. California, the Court once again will have to weigh police power against personal security.