The NCSL Blog

24

By Lisa Soronen

In Lange v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court held that pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not always justify entry into a home without a warrant.

The case the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday involved a police officer in California who had observed a man driving with loud music on and occasionally honking the car’s horn. Credit..Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesRather, “[a]n officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency.” All nine justices agreed with the result.

Arthur Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music and honking his horn. The officer followed Lange and put on his overhead lights, signaling Lange to pull over. Lange kept driving to his home which was about 100 feet away. The officer followed Lange into the garage and conducted field sobriety tests after observing signs of intoxication. A later blood test showed Lange’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

Lange argued that the warrantless entry into his garage violated the Fourth Amendment. The exigent circumstances exception allows warrantless searches when emergency situations present a “compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” California argued that pursuing someone suspected of a misdemeanor, in this case failing to comply with a police signal, always qualifies as an exigent circumstance authorizing a warrantless home entry. The California Court of Appeals agreed.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Elise Kagan, rejected a categorical approach. Instead, in instances of a misdemeanants’ flight, “[w]hen the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home—the police may act without waiting.”

The court noted that “when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” In United States v. Santana (1976), the court upheld a warrantless entry into a home of fleeing felon but said nothing about fleeing misdemeanants. And misdemeanors vary widely and may be minor. In Welsh v. Wisconsin (1984), the “court has held that when a minor offense alone is involved, police officers do not usually face the kind of emergency that can justify a warrantless home entry.” Likewise, “[t]hose suspected of minor offenses may flee for innocuous reasons and in non-threatening ways.”

The court concluded: “Our Fourth Amendment precedents thus point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight. That approach will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry.” Finally, the Court pointed out that “[t]he common law did not recognize a categorical rule enabling such an entry in every case of misdemeanor pursuit.” 

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, questions the merits of officers having to consider many factors, per the majority opinion, when deciding whether to pursue a fleeing suspect into their home without a warrant, including whether the suspect will be charge with a felony or a misdemeanor. According to these justices, “hot pursuit is not merely a setting in which other exigent circumstances justifying warrantless entry might emerge. It is itself an exigent circumstance.” “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.’”

Justice Bret Kavanaugh, in a solo concurrence, wonders if the difference between the chief justice’s concurrence and the majority’s approach “will be academic in most cases. That is because cases of fleeing misdemeanants will almost always also involve a recognized exigent circumstance—such as a risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others—that will still justify warrantless entry into a home.”

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.