Lange v. California: Pursuit of misdemeanor suspect does not always justify warrantless entry into home
Police pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not automatically create exigent circumstances to enter a home without a warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 23 in Lange v. California.
A police officer turned on his overhead lights to stop Arthur Lange, who was honking and playing loud music.
At the time the officer activated his lights, Lange was just four seconds from his driveway. Rather than stop, Lange continued into his driveway and into his attached garage.
The officer followed Lange in, and discovered he was intoxicated.
Lange was charged with misdemeanor driving-while-intoxicated.
Lange moved to suppress all evidence after Lange entered his garage on grounds that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment.
The prosecution argued pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect always qualifies as an exigent circumstance authorizing warrantless entry into a home. The California courts agreed.
The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a split of authority nationally.
The Supreme Court reversed, in an opinion joined, at least in part, by seven justices.
Warrantless entry into a home is the “chief evil” against which the Fourth Amendment is directed, the Court said. “So we are not eager – more the reverse – to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant.”
Common-law allowed police to enter a home to pursue a fleeing felon, but not a fleeing misdemeanant, the Court said.
The exigent circumstance exception to the Fourth Amendment has generally applied the exception on a “case-by-case basis,” the Court said. “That approach reflects the nature of emergencies.”
“Whether a ‘now or never situation’ actually exists – whether an officer has ‘no time to secure a warrant’ – depends on the facts on the ground,” the Court said.
“Under the usual case-specific view, an officer can follow the misdemeanant when, but only when, an exigency – for example, the need to prevent destruction of evidence – allows insufficient time to get a warrant,” the Court said.
“This Court has [previously] held 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,” the Court said.
“Our Fourth Amendment precedents thus point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight,” the Court said. “That approach will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry.”
“When the totality of circumstances shows an emergency – such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home – the police may act without waiting,” the Court concluded. But “[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.”
Justice Kavanaugh concurred, but wrote separately to note “the Court’s opinion does not disturb the long-settled rule that pursuit of a fleeing felon is itself an exigent circumstance justifying warrantless entry into a home.”
“In other words, the police may make a warrantless entry into the home of a fleeing felon regardless of whether other exigent circumstances are present,” he said.
Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion to express his view that the “federal exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence discovered in the course of pursuing a fleeing suspect.”
The “sole factor” that courts should consider in applying the exclusionary rule is deterring police misconduct, Thomas said. Applying the exclusionary rule to a fleeing suspect “would encourage bad conduct by criminal defendants.”
“Cases of fleeing suspects involve more than enough added costs to render the rule inapplicable,” Thomas said. “[E]xclusion is inappropriate because it would encourage suspects to flee.”
“Criminal defendants must rely on other remedies,” Thomas said.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, concurred in the outcome to vacate the California courts’ decision, but effectively dissented from the reasoning of the Court.
“It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule [that] [p]olice may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect,” Roberts said. “This Court errs by departing form that well-established rule.”