Justices take up Fourth Amendment case
The Supreme Court issued more orders on Monday from the justices’ private conference last week, adding three new cases to their merits docket for the term. In addition to cases involving the census (added on Friday) and two cases involving the Trump administration’s efforts to stem immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, the justices announced that they will weigh in on the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The justices denied review in another Fourth Amendment case, prompting a statement from Justice Neil Gorsuch, while Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the denial of review in a case involving the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
The Fourth Amendment generally requires police officers to get a warrant before entering a home. The Supreme Court has recognized an exception to that rule for emergencies, such as when the police are in hot pursuit of a suspect. In Lange v. California, the justices agreed to decide whether that exception applies when police are pursuing a suspect whom they believe committed a misdemeanor.
The question comes to the court in the case of Arthur Lange, a northern California man whom a California highway patrol officer followed to his home because he believed that Lange had violated state traffic laws by listening to loud music and honking his horn a few times. After Lange pulled into his garage, the officer – who had turned on his overhead lights but did not use his siren as Lange approached his house – entered the garage by putting his foot under the garage door to block it from closing. When he spoke to Lange, the officer said that he could smell alcohol on his breath, and Lange was charged with driving under the influence.
At his trial, Lange argued that the officer’s entry into his garage without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, so that the evidence obtained in the garage should be thrown out. The trial court rejected that argument, and a state appeals court affirmed that ruling and, eventually, his conviction. The California Court of Appeal also upheld his conviction, rebuffing Lange’s contention that the exception to the warrant requirement for a “hot pursuit” of a suspect should apply only in genuine emergencies, rather than when the police are investigating minor offenses. Instead, the court of appeal concluded, the warrantless entry did not violate the Constitution because the officer was in hot pursuit of Lange, whom he had probable cause to arrest for a misdemeanor.
Lange went to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to review the state court’s decision. The lower courts are “sharply divided” on the question of whether pursuits for misdemeanors justify a warrantless entry, Lange told the justices. And the California court’s rule, he added, would allow “officers investigating trivial offenses to invade the privacy of all occupants of a home even when no emergency prevents them from seeking a warrant.”
California agreed with Lange that the federal and state courts have reached different conclusions on the Fourth Amendment question presented by his case, but it told the justices that Lange’s case is not an appropriate one in which to reach that question because Lange’s DUI conviction should stand regardless of the outcome of this proceeding. But, the state continued, if the court were to grant review, California agrees with Lange that pursuits for misdemeanors do not always justify a warrantless entry; instead, the state suggested, courts should use a case-by-case approach to determine whether there is a genuine emergency.
The case will likely be scheduled for argument in February 2021 or later.
The justices denied review in Bovat v. Vermont, involving another question related to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement: whether police can enter the “semiprivate” areas – such as driveways, walkways and steps – within the area immediately around a house, known as a curtilage, without a warrant to investigate. The question came to the court after game wardens in Vermont went to the home of Clyde Bovat to investigate a possible “deer jacking” – the illegal nighttime killing of a deer. When the wardens didn’t see Bovat’s truck in the driveway, they went to the window of the garage. Through the window, they saw a truck with what appeared to be animal hair and blood on it.
When Bovat’s wife refused the wardens’ request for permission to enter the garage, the wardens applied electronically for a search warrant, citing the animal hair and blood that they had seen on the truck as evidence of the need for the warrant. They received the warrant, and Bovat was charged with violating the state’s hunting laws. Both the trial court and the Vermont Supreme Court rejected Bovat’s argument that the evidence could not be used against him, so Bovat went to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to weigh in on whether the wardens’ entry into the driveway without a warrant violated the Constitution.
The justices turned down Bovat’s appeal, but Gorsuch – joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – filed a statement regarding that decision. Gorsuch expressed surprise that the Vermont Supreme Court had decided the case without referring to Florida v. Jardines, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision holding that the curtilage is protected by the Fourth Amendment. Jardines, Gorsuch suggested, “almost certainly required a different result.” But even if the court opted not to grant review, Gorsuch continued, the state court’s mistake “remains worth highlighting to ensure it does not recur.”
In Rogers County Board of Tax Roll Corrections v. Video Gaming Technologies, the justices had been asked to decide whether Congress, in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, intended to exempt non-Native American, out-of-state companies that supply gaming equipment from generally applicable state property taxes. In a case involving efforts by Oklahoma to tax gaming equipment owned by an out-of-state company and leased to a tribe for use in casino operations, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that IGRA does trump the state tax, but the Supreme Court declined to weigh in.
In his dissent from the denial of review, Thomas referred to the justices’ decision in July in McGirt v. Oklahoma, in which the court ruled that land in northeastern Oklahoma remains a reservation for purposes of a federal law allowing the federal government to try serious crimes committed there by Native Americans. Quoting Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissenting opinion in McGirt, Thomas stressed that the decision “profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.” “The least we could do now,” Thomas suggested, “is mitigate some of that uncertainty” by granting review.
The justices also called for the views of the acting U.S. solicitor general in PricewaterhouseCoopers v. Laurent, a case involving the interpretation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. There is no deadline for the acting solicitor general to respond.
The justices’ next conference is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 30.
This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.