On June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Lange v. California.[i] The issue before the court was whether the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect categorically allowed the police to enter the suspect’s residence without a warrant. The relevant facts of Lange, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
This case began when petitioner Arthur Lange drove past a California highway patrol officer in Sonoma. Lange, it is fair to say, was asking for attention: He was listening to 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, though, Lange was only about a hundred feet (some four-seconds drive) from his home. Rather than stopping, Lange continued to his driveway and entered his attached garage. The officer followed Lange in and began questioning him. Observing signs of intoxication, the officer put Lange through field sobriety tests. Lange did not do well, and a later blood test showed that his 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, plus a (lower-level) noise infraction.[ii]
Lange was convicted and appealed his case through the California court system. Ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.
The Court noted, in the United States v. Santana,[iii] they previously held that a person could not defeat an arrest that was begun in public by retreating into their residence. Thus, the Court upheld the officer’s action in pursuing Santana into her home without a warrant. However, they also noted that the suspect, Santana, was suspected of selling drugs, a felony. The facts of Santana were that she was standing in the doorway of her residence when the police ordered her to stop. She fled into her home and the police pursued her inside, without a warrant, and arrested her. The Court also noted that they recognized that she could have easily destroyed evidence if the police had taken the time to obtain a warrant.
The Court noted that this case has been widely used in hot pursuit cases, whether for a misdemeanor or felony, to support warrantless entry into the suspect’s residence while in pursuit.
While not a hot pursuit case, the Court also examined Welsh v. Wisconsin, [iv] in which they held that the police could not enter a DUI suspect’s residence without a warrant to arrest him for a “nonjailable” offense based on the exigency that his blood/alcohol level would dissipate if they took the time to obtain a warrant. In Welsh, officers received a call regarding a possible drunk driver. The suspect had abandoned his vehicle and walked home. The police went to Welsh’s residence, walked in and arrested him. Additionally, the court explained that Welsh was not intended to be limited only to “nonjailable” offenses, but rather all “minor” offenses.[v]
The court also discussed common law and various precedent and ultimately held 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.[vi]
In summary, if an officer is in hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect, the suspect’s flight alone will not justify pursuing the suspect into his residence without a warrant. However, if some other exigency is also present, such as destruction of evidence, preventing imminent violence, or further escape from the home, the officer may make a warrantless entry in pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect.
[i] No. 20-18, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 3396
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] 427 U.S. 36 (1976)
[iv] 466 U.S. 740 (1984)
[v] see Lange at fn. 2
[vi] Id. at 24-25
[vii] Id. (emphasis added)