Supreme Court to Decide Whether Hot Pursuit Applies to Misdemeanors

In 2016, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held in State v. Adams, 250 N.C. App. 664 (2016), that law enforcement officers acted lawfully when, lacking a warrant, they chased a man suspected of driving while license revoked into his home where they arrested him. The court determined that because the officers were engaged in hot pursuit, they did not need to establish additional exigent circumstances such as immediate danger or destruction of evidence to justify forcibly entering the suspect’s home. This year, the United States Supreme Court is reviewing a California case raising the same issue:  Does pursuit of a person who a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualify as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant? See Lange v. California, 141 S. Ct. 1617 (2020) (granting review of People v. Lange, No. A157169, 2019 WL 5654385 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2019) (unpublished)).

Facts. A California Highway Patrol Officer was parked near a roadway in Sonoma County around 10 p.m. on a Friday night when he saw Lange driving a car with the music playing “very loudly.” The officer then heard Lange honk the car horn several times for no apparent reason. The officer began to follow Lange in his patrol car. After following Lange’s car through two turns, the officer activated the lights on his patrol car. Lange drove on for about 100 feet (four seconds) before turning into his driveway and driving into his garage. The garage door began to close after him. The officer pulled into the driveway, got out of his car, and stuck his foot into the garage door to prevent it from closing. The officer then went into the garage to question Lange, who ultimately was charged with driving while impaired.

Procedural History. Lange moved to suppress the evidence gathered in the stop, arguing both that a reasonable person in Lange’s position would not have thought he was being detained and that the officer should not have entered the garage to investigate possible traffic infractions. The State argued that Lange committed a misdemeanor when he failed to stop after the officer activated his blue lights. Thus, the State contended, the officer had probable cause to arrest Lange for a misdemeanor offense and exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry into Lange’s garage. The trial court denied the suppression motion and the appeals court affirmed. Lange pled no contest and again appealed. The appellate court affirmed his conviction.

Lange also challenged the revocation of his driver’s license on the basis that his arrest was unlawful. The trial court in that proceeding agreed with Lange, concluding that the hot pursuit doctrine did not justify the warrantless entry because all the officer knew when he entered the garage was that Lange had been playing his music too loudly and had honked his horn unnecessarily, transgressions that were infractions, not felonies. The court rejected DMV’s argument that Lange was fleeing when he drove into the garage, concluding there was no evidence that Lange knew anyone was following him.

The Court of Appeal for the First District granted a petition from Lange to review the criminal case. That Court determined that the denial of Lange’s suppression motion was correct under the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeal reasoned that by failing to pull over Lange gave the officer probable cause to arrest for the misdemeanor offenses of resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer and for refusal to comply with a lawful order, signal or direction of an officer. The Court then concluded that the officer was permitted to pursue Lange into the garage to prevent him from frustrating the arrest that was set in motion in a public place.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review last October.

Oral argument. The case was argued in February. Before the Supreme Court, Lange and the State of California were on the same side, both arguing that a case-specific exigency analysis was more appropriate than a categorial rule extending the hot-pursuit exception to suspected misdemeanants. Their arguments differed as to whether hot-pursuit was a categorial exception to the warrant requirement — even for felonies. Lange argued it was not, contending that the appropriate analysis was whether the suspect’s flight created an exigency. The State argued that hot-pursuit was a categorical exception, but only for felonies. Court-appointed amicus curiae argued in support of the California Court of Appeal’s judgment, positing that hot-pursuit was a categorial exception to the warrant requirement that applied in felony and misdemeanor cases. Amicus curiae for the United States argued in favor of a presumptive rule that when a misdemeanor suspect tries to thwart a lawful public encounter by moving the encounter to a residence, an officer’s decision to follow the person is reasonable. Both amici said their rule logically would encompass infractions as well as misdemeanors though both pointed out that issue was not before the court.

The justices identified problems with every position. Law enforcement officers who take the time to get a warrant may put themselves in harm’s way or lose evidence of the crime. If the hot pursuit rule only applies to felonies, then every state may categorize fleeing arrest and other minor offenses as felonies. If law enforcement officers may enter a home to arrest a suspect who they have attempted to stop for a minor, fine-only offense, then as Justice Breyer put it, the home is not the castle for the most trivial of things. And, as for a presumption, there is little tradition in Fourth Amendment law — outside what Justice Kagan called the “extremely sui generis area of drunk driving” — for using presumptions as opposed to case-by-case analysis of reasonableness.

Amy Howe of Scotus Blog analyzed the arguments here, noting that a major concern for several justices was “how to decide the case in a way that provided a workable rule for police officers going forward.” She wrote that the format for telephonic arguments in which each justice takes a turn asking each lawyer a question made it difficult in this case, as in others, to ascertain how the justices might ultimately vote.

Stay tuned. When the Court makes its decision, we will be sure to write about it here.

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