Case Summaries — United States Supreme Court (June 23, 2021)

This post summarizes the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Lange v. California, 594 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (June 23, 2021). This summary will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

Flight of a person suspected of a misdemeanor offense does not categorically justify an officer’s warrantless entry into a home.

Lange v. California, 594 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (June 23, 2021). In this case, the Court held, in an opinion by Justice Kagan, that the flight of a person suspected of a misdemeanor offense does not categorically justify an officer’s warrantless entry into a home.  Instead, an officer must consider all the circumstances in a case involving the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant to determine whether there is an exigency that would excuse the warrant requirement.

A California highway patrol officer attempted to stop the petitioner Lange’s car after observing him driving while playing loud music through his open windows and repeatedly honking his horn. Lange, who was within 100 feet of his home, did not stop.  Instead, he drove into his attached garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage, where he questioned Lange and saw that Lange was impaired. Lange was subsequently charged with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of alcohol and a noise infraction.

Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied Lange’s motion, and the appellate division affirmed. The California Court of Appeal also affirmed, concluding that an officer’s hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect is always permissible under the exigent circumstances to the warrant requirement. The United States Supreme Court rejected the categorial rule applied by the California Court of Appeal and vacated the lower court’s judgment.

In rejecting a categorial exception for hot pursuit in misdemeanor cases, the Court noted that the exceptions allowing warrantless entry into a home are “‘jealously and carefully drawn,’ in keeping with the ‘centuries-old principle’ that the ‘home is entitled to special protection.’” Slip op. at 6. Assuming without deciding that United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976), created a categorical exception that allows officers to pursue fleeing suspected felons into a home, the Court reasoned that applying such a rule to misdemeanors, which “run the gamut of seriousness” from littering to assault would be overbroad and would result in treating a “dangerous offender” and “scared teenager” the same. Slip op. at 11. Instead, the Court explained that the Fourth Amendment required that the exigencies arising from a misdemeanant’s flight be assessed on a case-by-case basis – an approach that “will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry.” Id. The Court explained that “[w]hen the totality of the circumstances shows an emergency — such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home” law enforcement officers may lawfully enter the home without a warrant. Id. The Court also cited as support the lack of a categorical rule in common law that would have permitted a warrantless home entry in every misdemeanor pursuit.

Justice Kavanaugh concurred, observing that “there is almost no daylight in practice” between the majority opinion and the concurrence of Chief Justice Roberts, in which the Chief Justice concluded that pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant constitutes an exigent circumstance. The difference between the two approaches will, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, be academic in most cases as those cases will involve a recognized exigent circumstance such as risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others in addition to flight.

Justice Thomas concurred on the understanding that the majority’s articulation of the general case-by-case rule for evaluating exceptions to the warrant requirement did not foreclose historical categorical exceptions. He also wrote to opine that even if the state courts on remand concluded the officer’s entry was unlawful, the federal exclusionary rule did not require suppression. Justice Kavanaugh joined this portion of Justice Thomas’s concurrence.

The Chief Justice, joined by Justice Alito, concurred in the judgment. The Chief Justice criticized the majority for departing from the well-established rule that law enforcement officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect – regardless of what offense the suspect was suspecting of doing before he fled. He characterized the rule adopted by the Court as “famously difficult to apply.” Roberts, C.J., concurrence, slip op. at 14. The Chief Justice concurred rather than dissenting because the California Court of Appeals assumed that hot pursuit categorically permits warrantless entry. The Chief Justice would have vacated the lower court’s decision to allow consideration of whether the circumstances in this case fell within an exception to the general rule, such as a case in which a reasonable officer would not believe that the suspect fled into the home to thwart an otherwise proper arrest.