California Supreme Court Allows Warrantless Entry into Homes of DUI Suspects


DUI law has long been rife with exceptions to the Constitutional limitations applied to most criminal investigations. Challenges to DUI roadblock checkpoints have typically failed, although people are stopped and investigated without probable cause. Most states have held that the right to counsel does not extend to obtaining legal advice before deciding whether or not to submit to a breathalyzer or blood alcohol test. However, until June 1 citizens could feel pretty secure in their own homes.

On June 1, the California Supreme Court took exceptions to our Constitutional protections to a new level, ruling 6-1 that law enforcement officers in that state may enter a DUI suspect's home without a warrant to make an arrest.

Of course, officers have always been able to follow a suspect into his home to make an arrest if they were in "hot pursuit" when he entered the residence. The new ruling, however, addresses an entirely different set of circumstances.

In the case before the court, police were responding to a call from a "concerned citizen" reporting that the defendant had been driving while intoxicated. Officers arrived at the defendant's home to find the vehicle parked by the curb. They approached the door of the residence and were told by another occupant that the defendant was asleep. Officers requested and were denied permission to enter the home.

When an officer saw a man fitting the description of the suspect in the house, they entered and placed him under arrest.

The state's highest court agreed with the prosecution's claim that the body's ability to metabolize alcohol and the possibility that the defendant could consume more alcohol-or claim to have consumed more alcohol-during the delay created "exigent circumstances".

Although the court stopped short of issuing a blanket ruling that law enforcement officers could enter a DUI suspect's home to make an arrest in all circumstances, the door has been opened wide for a claim of "exigent circumstances" in any alcohol-related case, since the body's ability to metabolize alcohol will always result in "destruction of evidence".

In addition, the ruling leaves many open questions. The door to the defendant's residence was open, allowing officers to see inside and to enter without destruction-but what if it hadn't been? Would officers be justified in kicking down the door if a DUI suspect didn't answer and they suspected that he was inside metabolizing alcohol? How will officers measure the credibility, in the moment, of a "concerned citizen" who makes such a report? Will squabbling neighbors and embittered ex-spouses be able to send police crashing through our front doors with a simple phone call?

While those questions haven't been answered specifically, all are within the reasonable interpretation of the new ruling, and there appears to be much more at risk than a DUI conviction.

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