In two very different California disputes, Supreme Court affirms private property rights

The Supreme Court seen above sunlit trees.
The Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that was in favor of police.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court upheld an individual’s right to private property against government intrusion in two very different California cases Wednesday, underscoring the libertarian leanings of the more conservative majority.

The decisions — one unanimous and the other ideologically split — also bolstered privacy rights.

In one case, the justices sided with a California motorist who complained when a police officer followed him without a warrant into his home garage, where he was questioned and ticketed for drunk driving.


In the second, the court voided a long-standing California labor rule that gave union organizers limited access to private farmland to talk to workers.

The justices, both conservative and liberal, have long looked skeptically at police searches of homes, and the unanimous ruling for the California driver arrested in his garage provided a chance to strengthen that position.

The court ruled for a retired Sonoma County real estate broker who was followed home by a California Highway Patrol officer. The officer noticed the man was playing loud music on his car radio.

The officer turned on the flashing lights of his patrol car just as Arthur Lange pulled into his driveway. The officer followed Lange into his garage, questioned him and then wrote him a ticket for drunk driving. Lange appealed, arguing his right to privacy had been violated.

The justices set aside his conviction and said the 4th Amendment usually forbids the police to enter a driveway or a home unless it is a true emergency or they have a search warrant.

Justice Elena Kagan noted that the case did not involve pursuing a felon fleeing from the scene of a major crime. Lange was charged with a misdemeanor.


“The need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry, even absent a law enforcement emergency,” she wrote. “When the nature of the crime, the nature of the flight, and surrounding facts present no such exigency, officers must respect the sanctity of the home — which means that they must get a warrant,” she wrote.

Although all nine justices agreed with the outcome in Lange’s case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a partial dissent. They said police should have leeway to pursue a fleeing suspect, regardless of the nature of the crime.

Roberts said Wednesday’s ruling will prove confusing for the police. “It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule: ‘Police officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect,’” he wrote, quoting a 2011 ruling that upheld an officer’s pursuit of a drug suspect who fled into an apartment.

Lange’s case was different, however, because he did not know the officer was following him and, therefore, was not a fleeing suspect.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said he agreed with the court’s ruling but stressed that its opinion “does not disturb the long-settled rule that pursuit of a fleeing felon is itself an exigent circumstance justifying warrantless entry into a home.”

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta applauded the ruling and said it “strengthens protections against warrantless entries into the home.”

A Superior Court judge and a California appeals court had ruled for the police and upheld the search because the officer had grounds to stop and question the motorist.

“Because the officer was in hot pursuit of a suspect whom he had probable cause to arrest, the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s driveway and garage were lawful,” the state court said.

Kagan and the high court disagreed, saying there is no “law enforcement emergency.” The “constitutional interest at stake is the sanctity of a person’s living space,” she said. “When it comes to the 4th Amendment, the home is first among equals.”

In the second decision Wednesday, the court struck down part of a historic California law inspired by Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers union, ruling that agricultural landowners and food processors have a right to keep union organizers off their property.

By a 6-3 vote, the justices said the state’s “right of access” rule violates property rights protected by the Constitution. The 5th Amendment says private property shall not be “taken for public use without just compensation.”

“The right to exclude is one of the most treasured rights of property ownership,” Roberts said.

The California Legislature in 1975 became the first in the nation to extend collective bargaining rights to farmworkers. Months later, a new agricultural labor board adopted the “right of access” rule to allow organizers to seek out those who were working on farmland.

Union organizers may enter a farm for one hour before the start of the workday or for an hour at the end of the day to pass out leaflets or to speak to workers.

This year, the state’s lawyers said the rule was still needed because farm laborers often worked in remote areas and were not fully aware of their rights to join a union.

But the rule has come under attack in recent years by agribusinesses that have called it a “union trespassing” rule that violates their property rights.

Writing for the court, Roberts said “the access regulation is not germane to any benefit provided to agricultural employers or any risk posed to the public.”

“The access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property. It therefore constitutes a per se physical taking,” he wrote in Cedar Point Nursery vs. Hassid.

He cited as precedents a pair of California cases: One ruled for the owner of a beachfront home in Ventura who objected to giving the public access to the shore, and a second one, from 2015, ruled for a grower from Fresno who objected to giving his grapes to a government-sponsored cooperative.

“The upshot of this line of precedent is that government-authorized invasions of property — whether by plane, boat, cable or beachcomber — are physical takings requiring just compensation,” Roberts said.

The three liberal justices dissented. They described the rule as a regulation, not a taking of property.

A lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the farm owners, cheered the ruling as “a huge victory for property rights.” It “affirms that one of the most fundamental aspects of property is the right to decide who can and can’t access your property,” said Joshua Thompson, a senior attorney for the group, based in Arlington, Va.

Karla Walter, a director of employment policy for the liberal Center for American Progress, called it a major setback for union organizing.

“Today the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned nearly a half-century of progress for California’s farmworkers, who have struggled to exercise their right to bargain for decent wages and to protect their health and safety,” she said. “Reaching farmworkers — the overwhelming majority of whom are Latinx and migrant workers — where they work is critical to protecting their rights and interests.”

The United Farm Workers said the “ruling makes a racist and broken farm labor system even more unequal. The Supreme Court has failed to balance a farmer’s property rights with a farmworker’s human rights.”

The case began in 2015. The owners of Fowler Packing Co. in Fresno, which produces grapes and citrus fruit, refused to allow union organizers onto their property.

A few months later, union organizers entered a strawberry packing plant near the Oregon border and disrupted the work, according to Mike Fahner, owner of the Cedar Point Nursery.

The two companies then joined in a lawsuit seeking to have the California union access regulation declared unconstitutional. They lost before a federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, but the Supreme Court voted to hear their appeal.

In defense of the rule, the state’s lawyers said it is similar to federal and state laws that allow meat and poultry inspectors to go into packing plants or health and safety inspectors to visit warehouses, manufacturing plants or construction sites.