Supreme Court Limits Warrantless Entry of Home in Hot Pursuit of Misdemeanor Suspect

June 28, 2021

On June 23, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court in Lange v. California, held that the pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect does not always justify entering his home without a warrant. This case arose when a police officer tried curbing a vehicle for a traffic offense. Instead of stopping, the suspect drove to his house and entered an attached garage. The officer followed, questioned the suspect, and conducted field sobriety tests after observing signs of intoxication. It turned out his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. He was charged with misdemeanor of driving under the influence. He moved to suppress the blood alcohol evidence, but the motion was denied and affirmed on appeal based on the exigent-circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Court began its analysis by reaffirming that the exigent circumstances exception permits a warrantless entry to prevent imminent injury, the destruction of evidence, or a suspect’s escape. However, while this rule applies in fleeing felon cases, this is not a categorical rule in misdemeanor cases. A misdemeanor flight does not necessarily create an exigent circumstance and should be assessed on a case-by-case based on the totality of the circumstances. Misdemeanor offenses are often minor and less violent or dangerous in nature than felonies. While flight creates a need for the police to act swiftly, flight alone does not always pose a danger in every case. In those cases, the police would have time to get a warrant. Thus, treating all misdemeanors the same would be overbroad. The nature of the offense, the nature of the flight, and the surrounding circumstances must be considered in assessing whether there is an exigency justifying a warrantless entry.

The Court concluded as follows: “The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home. An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency. On many occasions, the officer will have good reason to enter— to prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home. But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so—even though the misdemeanant fled.”

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