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SCOTUS Announces Pursuit of a Misdemeanant Does Not Categorically Constitute an Exigent Circumstance Authorizing a Warrantless Home Entry

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held that there is no categorical rule allowing a warrantless entry into a home when police are pursuing a misdemeanant.

Arthur Lange drove past a California highway patrol officer with music blaring through open windows while repeatedly honking his horn. The officer followed Lange and activated his lights, signaling Lange to pull over. Instead, Lange continued to drive approximately 100 feet (about 4 seconds) to his driveway and entered his garage. The officer blocked the closing garage door with his foot and entered the garage. Observing signs of intoxication, the officer put Lange through a series of field sobriety tests. Lange did not do well, and later blood test showed his blood-alcohol content was over three times the legal limit.

Lange was charged with a misdemeanor of driving under the influence of alcohol. He moved to suppress all evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The State rebutted, contending that the officer had probable cause to arrest Lange for the misdemeanor of failing to comply with a police signal. The State argued that the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant always qualifies as an exigent circumstance authorizing a warrantless home entry. The trial court denied the motion.

The First Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal (“COA)” affirmed. The COA reasoned that an “officer’s ‘hot pursuit’ into the house to prevent the suspect from frustrating the arrest” is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances “exception to the warrant requirement.” The California Supreme Court denied review.

But SCOTUS observed that courts are divided over whether the Fourth Amendment always permits an officer to enter a home without a warrant in pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect. Some courts have adopted a categorical rule always permitting a warrantless home entry in those circumstances (California, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, and New Hampshire) while other states require a case-specific showing (Florida, Arkansas, New Jersey, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit). (See the opinion for supporting citations.) SCOTUS granted certiorari to resolve the split.

The Court observed “[t]he Fourth Amendment provides that ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.’” The “ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006). Reasonableness “generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant” before law enforcement can enter a home without permission. Riley v. California 573 U.S. 373 (2014).

However, the warrant requirement is subject to specific recognized exceptions. Brigham City. One exception is for exigent circumstances, i.e., when “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.” Kentucky v. King 563 U.S. 452 (2011).

SCOTUS’ jurisprudence has identified such exigencies to include: entry of a home to render emergency aid to an injured occupant; to ensure the officer’s own safety; to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence; and to prevent a suspect’s escape. Brigham City; Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91 (1990). Because the delay required to seek a warrant in those circumstances would bring about “some real immediate and serious consequences,” the absence of a warrant is excused. Welsh v. Wisconsin 466 U.S. 740 (1984).

In the present case, SCOTUS was asked to formally adopt a categorial approach when a suspected misdemeanant flees from police to his home. That is, exigency exists in every such instance allowing for warrantless entry into the suspect’s home because such “entries are categorically reasonable regardless of whether” any risk of harm “materializes” based on the fact that fleeing from police is itself sufficient to justify a warrantless entry. The Court rejected the invitation to adopt such a categorial rule.

SCOTUS has generally applied the exigent-circumstances exception on a “case-by-case basis.” Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S. 438 (2016). Whether an officer has “no time to secure a warrant” depends upon the specific facts of the case. Riley. The issue is most naturally considered by looking to the totality of the circumstances confronting the officer as he decides to make the warrantless entry. Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013).

The Court explained that “when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). “Freedom” in one’s own “dwelling is the archetype of the privacy protection secured by the Fourth Amendment;” conversely, “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which [it] is directed.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980). While exigent circumstances will allow even warrantless intrusions, the contours of that or any other warrant exception permitting home entry are “jealously and carefully drawn” in keeping with the “centuries-old principle” that the “home is entitled to special protection.” Georgia v. Randolph,547 U.S. 103 (2006). Because of the foregoing principles, SCOTUS “has repeatedly declined to expand the scope [of] exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.” Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021).

The Court noted that while there is precedent allowing officers in pursuit of a suspected drug dealer—a felon—to enter a home without a warrant, United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976), that case said nothing about fleeing misdemeanants. SCOTUS has explicitly held that “the law regarding warrantless entry in hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant is not clearly established.” Stanton v. Sims, 571 U.S. 3.

While misdemeanors vary widely in severity, they tend to be “minor,” according to the Court. Welsh. Misdemeanors run the gamut from assault, Cal Penal Code Ann. § 241, to negligently cutting a plant growing on public land. Id. at § 384a(a)(2), (f). SCOTUS has stated 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.” Welsh. “[A]pplication of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense” is involved. Id.

The Court declared that even adding in a suspect’s flight will not justify a categorical rule allowing warrantless home entry for minor offenses. For example, in Mascorro v. Billings, 656 F.3d 1198 (10th Cir. 2011), a teenager driving without taillights did not stop upon seeing a police signal but drove two blocks to his parents’ house and hid in the bathroom. There were no exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless home entry, yet a categorial rule would permit such an entry by police into the teenager’s home, observed the Court. It explained: “In misdemeanor cases, flight does not always supply the exigency that this Court has demanded for a warrantless home entry.”

The Court concluded that its Fourth Amendment precedents point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight. The Court further determined this conclusion aligns with the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. “The zealous and frequent repetition of the adage that a ‘man’s house is his castle’ made it abundantly clear that both in England and in the Colonies ‘the freedom of one’s house’ was one of the most vital elements of English liberty.” Semayne’s case, 77 Eng. Rep. 194 (K.B.1604). The “prominent law lords, the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of the King’s Bench, [and] Parliament” all “came to embrace” the “understanding” that generally “a warrant must issue” before a government official could enter a house. Donohue, “The Original Fourth Amendment,” 83 U.Chi.L.Rev. 1181 (2016).

But there was an oft-discussed exception allowing an officer to enter a house to pursue a felon. 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Law of England 98 (1791). But, as the Court points out, the category of felony was much narrower than today with felony status largely limited to crimes punishable by death. However, there was no such categorical rule with respect to misdemeanors, i.e., there was no “all-misdemeanor-flight rule,” as the Court put it.

Importantly for modern, contemporary times, the Fourth Amendment “must provide at a minimum, the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted.” United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). Thus, the Court rejected a categorical rule permitting warrantless home entry while pursuing a fleeing misdemeanant.

Instead, the Court adopted the case-specific rule for situations involving the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant into his home and warrantless entry. The Court instructed: “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.”

Because the California COA applied a categorical rule, SCOTUS vacated its judgement and remanded the case for further proceedings to determine if exigent circumstances existed to justify warrantless home entry in the instant case.

Even though the Court’s decision was unanimous, Chief Justice Roberts wrote his own opinion, joined by Justice Alito, taking issue with the Court’s position that flight itself was insufficient to trigger an exception to the warrant requirement.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a concurrence highlighting his agreement with Chief Justice Roberts. And Justice Thomas wrote his own concurrence to “note two things: the general case-by-case rule that the court announces today is subject to historical, categorical exceptions; and under our precedent, the federal exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence discovered in the course of pursuing a fleeing suspect.” See: Lange v. California, 141 S. Ct. 2011 (2021).

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Lange v. California



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