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SCOTUS: Police May Still Need Warrant In “Hot Pursuit” Of Misdemeanor Suspects

Police officers don’t have carte blanche to enter a home without a warrant when pursuing a fleeing suspect for a misdemeanor offense, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous ruling in Lange v. California, the high court declined to grant police unlimited authority to enter homes without a warrant when they’re in “hot pursuit” of someone for a misdemeanor crime.

Police are generally required to have a warrant to enter someone’s home under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable searches.” However, courts have allowed exceptions when an officer is in pursuit of a suspect believed to have committed a felony.

The flight of a suspect for a misdemeanor crime does not always justify a warrantless entry exception, the justices ruled.

“An officer must consider all the circumstance in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for a majority of the court. “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. “

The Case Before the High Court: Lange v. California

The court’s ruling stems from the case of Lange v. California, a California man convicted of driving under the influence. On October 7, 2016, Arthur Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music and honking his horn. The officer believed that was a noise violations and started following Lange. The officer  attempted to pull over Lange, who drove a short distance to his home and entered his garage. The officer followed Lange into his garage, where he questioned him and, after observing signs of intoxication, gave him filed sobriety tests. A later blood test showed Lange’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

Lange was arrested and charged with misdemeanor DUI. Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The court found that, because the officer was in “hot pursuit” of suspect whom he had probable case to arrest for a law violation, the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s driveway and garage were lawful.

The court denied Lange’s motion and he was ultimately convicted. The court of appeals affirmed Mr. Lange’s conviction

The case was ultimately appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Lange contended that the officer had no right to enter his home without a warrant and the DUI evidence was obtained illegally.

The Question in Lange’s Case

Since 1976, the Supreme Court has held that police may conduct a warrantless search when pursing a felon. The question in Lange’s case was whether police could do the same when pursuing someone of a minor, or misdemeanor, offense.

The justices ruled they could not and sent the case back to the lower courts for another look in light of their ruling.

“Pursuit of a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing a warrantless home entry,” Justice Kagan wrote.

While the court’s ruling was unanimous, several justices wrote concurring opinions with separate legal reasoning.

It was the first time justices reviewed the scope of the “hot pursuit” doctrine when it comes to minor offenses. The case is significant to law enforcement and privacy groups alike, and the takeaway is this: Police must evaluate on a case-by-case basis the need for a warrant in a misdemeanor case to determine if there is an emergency.

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