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Supreme Court Restricts Police Powers To Enter A Home Without A Warrant

Updated June 23, 2021 at 12:31 PM ET

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police cannot always enter a home without a warrant when pursuing someone for a minor crime.

The court sent the case back to the lower court to decide if the police violated the rights of a California man by pursuing him into his garage for allegedly playing loud music while driving down a deserted two-lane highway late at night.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan said police had no right to enter the man's home without a warrant for such a trivial offense.

"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," she wrote. "But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so — even though the misdemeanant fled."

The court's ruling came in the case of Arthur Lange, who was playing loud music in his car late one night, at one point honking his horn several times. A California highway patrol officer, believing Lange was violating a noise ordinance, followed him, and when the motorist slowed to enter his driveway, the officer put on his flashing lights.

Lange, who later said he didn't notice the police car, drove into his garage. The officer, in "hot pursuit," got out of his car and put his foot under the closing garage door sensor to force the door open again. He had no warrant to enter the home, but once inside, he said, he smelled liquor on Lange's breath and arrested him, not only for the noise violation, but also for driving under the influence.

Lange appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, contending that the officer had no right to enter his home without a warrant and that the DUI evidence had been illegally obtained.

The Supreme Court has long held that police may conduct a warrantless search when pursuing a fleeing felon. The question in Lange's case was whether police are free to do the same thing when pursuing someone suspected of a minor offense like playing loud music.

"[P]ursuit of a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing a warrantless home entry," Kagan wrote.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.