SCOTUS Opinion on Warrantless Home Entry in Lange v. California Has Big Implications for Americans’ Digital Security
In February, PPSA reported that several Supreme Court Justices had, at oral argument in Lange v. California, expressed skepticism on the question of whether the Fourth Amendment always allows the police to enter the home of a fleeing misdemeanant, someone suspected of a minor crime less than a felony. We predicted that the Court would reverse a lower-court decision holding otherwise.
The facts here were straightforward. An officer followed Arthur Lange after noticing him playing loud music and honking his horn. Seconds after the officer turned on his lights, Lange pulled into his garage, failing to notice the police car behind him. As the garage door closed, the officer put his foot under the closing garage door sensor to force the door open again. Once inside, he conducted a sobriety test, which showed that Lange was intoxicated. Lange then moved to suppress the evidence of that test because it was obtained after the officer entered his garage without a warrant. He lost in both lower courts, and the California Court of Appeal held that such entries are always permissible under the Fourth Amendment.
In the recent Supreme Court opinion, PPSA’s prediction proved correct. The Court declined to hold that the police have a categorical right to enter the home of a fleeing misdemeanant without a warrant. Instead, citing well-established precedent, the Court held that “when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so – even though the misdemeanant fled.” In so holding, the Court recognized that some exigencies, such as the need to “prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home,” might still justify a warrantless home entry. But because the lower court had applied a categorical rule – and therefore failed to address whether there were any exigencies here – the Supreme Court remanded the case for the lower court’s consideration under the proper standard.
The Court’s opinion cited many of the same common-law precedents that PPSA did in its amicus brief. But as our brief emphasized, this case is more important because of what it says about privacy in this digital age.
While the protections for electronic devices and communications remain under development, it is unlikely that courts would give such information sources more protection than the home. Accordingly, if the Court were to create a categorical misdemeanor exigency rule applicable to home entry, that rule would inexorably be extended to warrantless entry into electronic sources of information, posing an even more pernicious and extensive threat to privacy and its Fourth Amendment protections.
For example, today’s smartphones and other devices contain information detailing every aspect of a person’s life—messages to family, identifying documents, intimate pictures, personal journals, health information, financial data, and more are likely to be found on a device that the government has the technical ability to search remotely.
By making this decision, the Supreme Court not only refined the restrictions on entering garages. The Court also declined to create a new categorical rule that would always allow the police to enter a fleeing misdemeanant’s home. Because homes have always had more Fourth Amendment protections than any other space, such a precedent would have opened a door to warrantless digital snooping into our private lives. We are grateful the Court declined to create such a dangerous precedent.