Last term the United States Supreme Court strengthened the traditional American notion that a man's house is his castle.

A majority of six of the nine Supreme Court members ruled that the Constitution prohibits police from entering a dwelling in order to make a routine felony arrest if the officers lack an arrest warrant or a consent to enter.

The ruling came on appeals from two New York convictions that required the Court to interpret the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which, in part, reads, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." As it has so often in the past, the Court determined whether the police acted reasonably when they arrested one defendant charged with murder and another charged with armed robbery.

After an intensive investigation, New York detectives accumulated enough evidence to convince themselves that Theodore Payton had murdered the manager of a gas station two days earlier. The next morning, six police officers went to Payton's apartment without an arrest warrant to take him into custody. There was no response to the police officers' knock on the door, even though they could see a light on inside and could hear music coming from within.

Using crowbars to enter the apartment, police found no one inside. Once inside, however, they discovered in plain view a 30-caliber shell casing later admitted into evidence at Payton's murder trial.

In the other case, Obie Reddick was arrested for armed robbery, a full two months after police had learned his address. During the interim two-month period, police had made no effort to arrest Reddick, nor did they obtain an arrest warrant. When four officers went to Reddick's house, they could see him sitting in bed. Their knock at the door was answered by Reddick's young son. They entered and arrested Reddick. Before they permitted him to get dressed, police searched a dresser two feet from Reddick's bed. They found narcotics, and Reddick was later indicted on narcotics charges.

In both cases the critical issue became whether the police had acted lawfully in entering the defendants' homes to make the arrests. If the arrests were found to be illegal, then the evidence uncovered by the police during the entries would have to be excluded from the trials.

If, however, the police operated within the law when they entered the defendants' homes without warrants, the evidence could be used to convict Payton and Reddick. Even if the arrests were found to be illegal, the defendants could still be tried for their crimes, but the state would be denied the use at trial of the evidence found during the attempted arrest of Payton and the arrest of Reddick. That is how the exclusionary rule operates, denying to the prosecution evidence uncovered during the violation of a defendant's right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The rule is not a popular one among some of the justices of the Supreme Court, and they have utilized every opportunity to limit its scope. The Payton case, however, slowed that trend.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who in four years on the Supreme Court has established himself as the leader of the moderate justices, wrote the majority opinion, which reversed Payton's and Reddick's convictions and ordered the State of New York to afford them new trials. The ruling declared unconstitutional a New York statute that authorized police to enter apartments and homes without prior judicial authorization provided by a warrant in order to arrest persons charged with felonies. The New York statute was representative of a well-ensconced common law rule among the states that so long as there is probable cause to make an arrest on a felony charge, no warrant is necessary even though officers might have ample time to secure one and there were no emergency conditions which would make securing a warrant impractical.

The court had reaffirmed only four years earlier the right of police to make warrantless felony arrests in public places, but here drew the line on that authority at the doorstep of a citizen's home.

In his thoughtful opinion, Stevens recognized that the Payton decision results in a significant change of law. He wrote that a "longstanding, wide-spread practice is not immune from constitutional scrutiny. But neither is it to be lightly brushed aside." In its deliberations, the court reached back to the Revolutionary War and the colonists' unyielding opposition to unreasonable entries of their homes by English customs officers. That opposition led to the War of Independence and the Fourth Amendment. Now this Supreme Court has extended the protection to nonemergency warrantless entries.

This decision is not unduly restrictive on the police. They may still enter a private dwelling without a warrant in order to make an arrest when circumstances justify a warrantless entry and the bypassing of the warrant procedure.

But when there are no justifications for bypassing the warrant procedure, the Supreme Court has made the simple statement that it is unreasonable for police to invade a man or woman's home to make an arrest without prior judicial approval.

The Payton ruling is a thoughtful reaffirmation of this nation's constitutional commitment to individual privacy.