Friday, June 25th, 2021

Police can’t chase a suspected misdemeanant into his home without a warrant—except when they can, which is probably most of the time.

In Lange v. California, No. 21-18, 594 U.S. __ (June 23, 2021), the Supreme Court holds that pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not categorically qualify as an exigent circumstance that permits police to enter a home without a warrant. That is: if a New York police officer tries to stop and ticket you for littering, and you run away, the officer cannot necessarily chase you into your home.

But sometimes, probably even most times, he can. Per the Supreme Court: “A great many misdemeanor pursuits involve exigencies allowing warrantless entry,” so it “turns on the particular facts of the case.”

In Lange, the defendant drove past California highway patrol officers “listening to loud music with his windows down and repeatedly honking his horn.” This prompted officers to follow Lange and then signal for him to pull over. By the time police turned on their signal, Lange was a “four-seconds drive” from his driveway. He continued into his garage. Officers followed him inside and ultimately arrested him for driving under the influence.

Lange sought to suppress evidence that the police obtained by following him into his garage. The state argued that police already had probable cause to arrest him for misdemeanor failure to comply with a police signal (not pulling over four seconds faster), and that they could follow him into his home to effectuate this arrest, even without a warrant. The California court agreed, concluding that an officer’s “hot pursuit” into a house to make a misdemeanor arrest always qualified as an exigent circumstance sufficient to excuse getting a warrant.

In a majority opinion by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court rejected such a categorical rule. The Court emphasized that the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement has always been applied on a case-by-case basis, based on the “totality of circumstances.” “That approach reflects the nature of emergencies. Whether a ‘now or never situation’ actually exists … depends upon facts on the ground.”

The Court finds such a case-by-case analysis particularly important when dealing with misdemeanors, which “run the gamut of seriousness.” The Court opines that when only a minor offense is involved, “police officers do not usually face the kind of emergency that can justify a warrantless home entry.” On the other hand, it admits that its case-by-case “approach will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry.”

As Justice Kavanaugh recognizes in his short concurrence, the difference between this and a categorical rule will likely be academic in most cases, “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.”

Lange is both a small and a sweeping opinion. On the one hand, its narrow holding provides limited guidance for courts as to when police may enter a person’s home without a warrant based on misdemeanor flight.

On the other hand, just over a year after a police officer’s killing of George Floyd was precipitated by his suspected use of a counterfeit $20 bill, Lange underscores and affirms the expansive power and discretion of police “on the ground.” As the majority recognizes, states criminalize conduct ranging in seriousness, and state misdemeanor offenses include things as minor as littering, cutting down the wrong plant, driving without a seat belt, or making loud noise. But if police have some reason to think you have committed such an offense—and even if they are factually or legally wrong, Heien v. California (2014), Hill v. California (1971)—they can stop you; search you; arrest you, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (2001); chase you into your home, Lange; and, depending on the circumstances, ram your car or shoot you if you try to get away, Brosseau v. Haugen (2004), Scott v. Harris (2007).

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