The United States Supreme Court, in a decision issued this summer, established guidelines for when pursuing police officers can enter the home of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect without a warrant. In Lange v. California, 141 S.Ct. 2011 (2021), the Petitioner, Arthur Lange, drove past a California highway patrol officer with the windows in his car down, playing loud music, and repeatedly honking his horn. The officer began following Lange and turned on his overhead lights signaling Lange to pull over. Lange was only 100 feet from his home and he continued to his driveway and entered his garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage without a warrant and started questioning him. Lange appeared intoxicated, so the officer administered field sobriety tests. It turned out Lange was intoxicated and the State of California charged him with driving under the influence – a misdemeanor – and a lower level noise infraction.
Lange moved to suppress all the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage on the grounds that the warrantless entry violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Both the trial court and a California Appellate Court denied Lange’s motion to suppress, and the California Supreme Court refused to consider the case on appeal. 141 S.Ct. at 2016. The California Appellate Court based its decision on the rule that an officer’s “hot pursuit” into a house to prevent a suspect from fleeing and frustrating an arrest always is an exigent circumstance that provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Id. The United States Supreme Court took the case to decide the question of whether the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect always qualifies as an exigent circumstance that allows a police officer to enter a home without a warrant. 141 S.Ct. at 2017.
The Supreme Court noted that the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” standard governs governmental searches and seizures and this standard generally requires the obtaining of a warrant before a law enforcement officer can enter a home without permission. 141 S.Ct. 2017. One important exception to the warrant requirement is the existence of exigent circumstances, understood as emergencies that require law enforcement officers to take immediate action without the time to secure a warrant. Id. The United States Supreme Court recognizes exigent circumstances to include: rendering emergency assistance to an injured person; protecting an occupant from imminent danger, ensuring the officer’s safety, preventing the imminent destruction of evidence or preventing a suspect’s escape. Id.
The Supreme Court recognizes a fleeing felony suspect can be pursued into the suspect’s home without a warrant based on exigent circumstances. 141 S.Ct. at 2018. But in Lange v. California, the Supreme Court refused to endorse a similar categorical rule with regard to misdemeanor suspects. It observed that many misdemeanors are minor, non-violent offenses which do not present officers with an emergency situation justifying a warrantless home entry. Id. at 2020. The fact that a misdemeanor suspect is fleeing does not necessarily create an exigent circumstance requiring law enforcement personnel to enter a home without a warrant. Id. at 2021. Rather, the Fourth Amendment points toward “accessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight.” Id. When the totality of the circumstances shows an emergency, e.g., imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer, destruction of evidence, or escape from home – then officers may enter the residence without a warrant. Id However, when the totality of the circumstances does not indicate an emergency, officers cannot enter a misdemeanor suspect’s home without first getting a warrant. The Supreme Court stated in this regard that, “[w]hen 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.” Id. at 2022.
In Lange v. California, the United States Supreme Court set limits on when officers pursuing a misdemeanor suspect can enter a home without first going to court and getting a warrant. The Supreme Court understands that on many occasions flight by a misdemeanor suspect will constitute an exigent circumstance that creates a need for police to act swiftly without a warrant. 141 S.Ct. at 2021. But the Fourth Amendment requires officers to consider “all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency.” Id. at 2024. If an exigent circumstance does not exist, officers must get a warrant even though the misdemeanor suspect fled. Id.