In Lange v. California, the United States Supreme Court held that an officer’s pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not categorically justify a warrantless entry into a home.  Instead, as per Supreme Court precedent, a case-by-case assessment of exigency is required when deciding whether a suspected misdemeanant’s flight justifies a warrantless home entry.

Background

Arthur Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer in Sonoma.  Lange was playing loud music with his windows down and repeatedly honking his horn.  The officer began to tail Lange, and soon afterward turned on his overhead lights to signal that Lange should pull over.  By that time, however, Lange was only approximately 100 hundred feet (and about a four-second drive) from his home.  Instead of stopping, Lange continued to his driveway and entered his attached garage.  The officer followed Lange into the garage and began questioning him.  Observing signs of intoxication, the officer put Lange through field sobriety tests.  Lange did not do well on these tests.  A later blood test revealed that Lange’s blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit.

The State charged Lange with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of alcohol.  Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry had violated the Fourth Amendment.  The State argued that the officer had probable cause to arrest Lange for the misdemeanor of failing to comply with a police signal.  The State insisted that the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant always qualifies as an exigent circumstance authorizing a warrantless home entry.  The Superior Court denied Lange’s motion, and its appellate division affirmed.

The California Court of Appeal also affirmed, accepting the State’s argument in full.  The Court of Appeal reasoned that Lange’s failure to immediately pull over when the officer flashed his lights created probable cause to arrest Lange for a misdemeanor.  The Court stated that a misdemeanor suspect could not defeat an arrest begun in a public place by retreating into a house or other private place.  Rather, the Court held, an officer’s pursuit into the house to prevent the suspect from frustrating the arrest is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.  Because of this flat rule, the Court of Appeal concluded, the highway patrol officer’s pursuit of misdemeanor suspect Lange into the driveway and garage was lawful – despite the lack of a warrant.  The California Supreme Court denied review.

Noting that courts have been divided on the issue, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve whether the Fourth Amendment categorically permits an officer to enter a home without a warrant in pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect. 

Discussion

The Supreme Court noted that the 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.”  “[T]he ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’”  Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398, 403 (2006).  The “reasonableness” standard “generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant” before a law enforcement officer can enter a home without permission.  Riley v. California, 573 U. S. 373, 382 (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).

However, the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions.  One such exception is for exigent circumstances.  An officer may make a warrantless entry 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, 460 (2011).  For example, an officer may enter a home to protect an occupant from imminent injury, to provide emergency assistance to an injured occupant, to ensure the officer’s own safety, to prevent the destruction of evidence, or to prevent a suspect’s escape.  Brigham City, 547 U. S., at 403.  In such circumstances, the absence of a warrant is excused because the delay to obtain one could have immediate and serious consequences.

Here, the Supreme Court considered whether the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance, or if a “case-by-case basis” application of the exigent-circumstances exception is warranted.  Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U. S. 438, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 16).  The Court noted that its Fourth Amendment precedents had generally applied a “case-specific” approach “look[ing] to the totality of circumstances” confronting the officer as he decides to make a warrantless entry.  Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U. S. 141, 149 (2013).

The Court explained that “[f]reedom” in one’s own “dwelling is the archetype of the privacy protection secured by the Fourth Amendment” such that “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which [it] is directed.”  Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 585, 587 (1980) (internal quotation marks omitted).  Because the “home is entitled to special protection[,]” the Supreme Court stated that it “ha[d] repeatedly declined to expand the scope” of “exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home[.]”  Caniglia v. Strom, 593 U. S. ___, ___ (2021) (slip op., at 4).

The amicus argued that a suspect’s flight always supplies the exigency needed to justify a warrantless home entry and that the Supreme Court had already endorsed such a categorical approach in United States v. Santana, 427 U. S. 38 (1976).  In upholding a warrantless entry made during a “hot pursuit” of a felony suspect, the Santana Court stated that Santana’s “act of retreating into her house” could “not defeat an arrest” that had “been set in motion in a public place.”  Id., at 42-43.  In the instant case, the Supreme Court rejected the view of Santana presented by the amicus.  The Court explained that even assuming that Santana treated fleeing-felon cases categorically, that statement still did not establish a flat rule permitting warrantless home entry whenever a police officer pursues a fleeing misdemeanant.  Santana did not resolve the issue of misdemeanor pursuit, and “the law regarding warrantless entry in hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant [was] not clearly established” one way or the other.  Stanton v. Sims, 571 U. S. 3, 8, 10 (2013) (per curiam).

The Court observed that misdemeanors “run the gamut of seriousness,” and they may be minor.  States tend to apply the misdemeanor label to less violent and less dangerous crimes.  The Supreme Court had earlier held that “application 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.  Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U. S. 740, 753 (1984).  The Court explained that although “the calculus changes” when considering the additional circumstance of a suspect’s flight, it did not change enough to justify a categorical rule.  While flight creates a need for police to act swiftly in many situations, the Court stated that “no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight creates such a need.”

The Court thus determined that its Fourth Amendment precedents pointed toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight.  The Court found that the common law in place at the Constitution’s founding similarly did not have—and did not support—a categorical rule allowing warrantless home entry when a suspected misdemeanant flees.  The Court thus concluded that pursuit of a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing a warrantless entry into a home.  The Court stated that when the totality of circumstances (including a suspect’s flight) shows an emergency—a need to act before it is possible to get a warrant—the police may act without waiting.  But assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight was the correct approach, rather than application of a categorical rule. 

Because the Court of Appeal had applied the categorical rule the Supreme Court rejected here, the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The Supreme Court rejected a categorical rule justifying warrantless entry into a home in pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect.  Instead, an officer must consider the totality of circumstances in a pursuit to determine whether a law enforcement emergency has arisen.  If the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so—even if the misdemeanor suspect has fled.  However, flight is indeed one of the circumstances for consideration.  Other examples include reasonable belief of imminent destruction of evidence, risk of injury to occupants or others, or escape of the suspect.  As one important note, the actual actions of the officer involved in this investigation were not determined to be unconstitutional.  The case was remanded for assessment under the rule being established.

The interpretation of how this decision impacts law enforcement operations begins with the recognition any forced entry into a residence is a potentially volatile set of circumstances.  An officer may encounter an unknown number of suspects.  The presence of weapons is uncertain.  These hazards also aggravate the risk of a rapidly occurring close quarter confrontation with minimal time for an officer to evaluate what they are facing.  The arrival of additional cover officers may also be unpredictable based on travel distance, traffic conditions, and time required to locate the actual place of contact.  As leaders in law enforcement, any time our personnel are exposed to these dangers, we want to assure the public safety objectives are risk appropriate.

To an extent, the same considerations that determine constitutional reasonableness under this decision also guide the evaluation of whether a forced entry is sound from an officer safety and risk/benefit perspective.  California law enforcement is very familiar with this type of weighing of need for apprehension balanced against risks in existence at that immediate time.  We recognize the same type of assessment occurs in whether to initiate or continue vehicle pursuits giving consideration to risk of injury, whether suspect identity is known, and the viability the suspect can be arrested at a later time, offset against the dangers associated with the suspect remaining present in the community.

One of the benefits from utilizing the warrant process is the actions we take will already have been subject to judicial review.  The use of a warrant also means control of operational cadence and momentum and the level of resources a department deploys shifts away from the suspect and back to the agency.

In terms of steps a department can take in response to this decision, agencies may want to confirm all field personnel have access to and are familiar with the mechanism for obtaining warrants during nighttime hours and on weekends.  This may also be an occasion to affirm to our first-line supervisors and watch commanders the critical nature of their role in the organization in guiding this type of enforcement operation.  Similarly, this could be a timely opportunity to conduct update training on principles of command and control and service of warrants.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400, or via email, at jrt@jones-mayer.com

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