Facts of the Case
A California Highway Patrol officer observed a parked car “playing music very loudly,” and then the driver, Arthur Gregory Lange, honked the horn four or five times despite there being no other vehicles nearby. Finding this behavior unusual, the officer began following Lange, intending to conduct a traffic stop. After following Lange for several blocks, the officer activated his overhead lights, and Lange “failed to yield.” Lange turned into a driveway and drove into a garage. The officer followed and interrupted the closing garage door. When asked whether Lange had noticed the officer, Lange replied that he had not. Based on evidence obtained from this interaction, Lange was charged with two Vehicle Code misdemeanors and an infraction.
Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the garage. At the suppression hearing, the prosecutor argued that Lange committed a misdemeanor when he failed to stop after the officer activated his overhead lights and that the officer had probable cause to arrest Lange for this misdemeanor offense. Based on this probable cause, the prosecutor argued that exigent circumstances justified the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s garage. Lange’s attorney argued that a reasonable person in Lange's position would not have thought he was being detained when the officer activated his overhead lights, and the officer should not have entered Lange's garage without a warrant. The court denied Lange’s motion to suppress, and the appellate division affirmed. Lange pled no contest and then appealed the denial of his suppression motion a second time. The appellate division affirmed Lange's judgment of conviction.
In the meantime, Lange filed a civil suit, asking the court to overturn the suspension of his license, and the civil court granted the petition after determining Lange's arrest was unlawful. The court reasoned that the “hot pursuit” doctrine did not justify the warrantless entry because when the officer entered Lange's garage, all the officer knew was that Lange had been playing his music too loudly and had honked his horn unnecessarily, which are infractions, not felonies.
Based on the inconsistent findings of the courts, Lange petitioned for transfer to the California Court of Appeal, which concluded that Lange's arrest was lawful and affirmed the judgment of conviction.
Does the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement apply when police are pursuing a suspect whom they believe committed a misdemeanor?
Pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not categorically qualify as an exigent circumstance justifying a warrantless entry into a home. Justice Elena Kagan authored the majority opinion of the Court.
The Fourth Amendment ordinarily requires a police officer to obtain a warrant to enter a home, but under settled law, an officer may enter a home without a warrant under certain specific circumstances, including exigency. The Court has recognized exigent circumstances when an officer must act to prevent imminent injury, the destruction of evidence, or a felony suspect’s escape.
That a suspect is fleeing does not categorically create exigency. In United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976), the Court recognized that the “hot pursuit” of a felony suspect created exigency that justified warrantless entry into a home. However, that case did not address hot pursuit of misdemeanor suspects. Rather, the Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents support a case-by-case assessment of the exigencies arising from a particular suspect’s flight.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored a concurring opinion noting that the reasoning of the majority and that of Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion concurring in the judgment are not so dissimilar as they might seem at first. Rather, cases involving fleeing misdemeanor suspects “will almost always” involve a recognized exigent circumstance” such that warrantless entry into a home is justified.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas noted that the general case-by-case rule described by the majority is subject to historical, categorical exceptions. Joined by Justice Kavanaugh, Justice Thomas also noted that the federal exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence discovered in the course of pursuing a fleeing suspect.
Chief Justice Roberts authored an opinion concurring in the judgment, which Justice Samuel Alito joined. The Chief Justice argued that it is well established that the flight, not the underlying offense, justifies the “hot pursuit” exception.
Featuring Clark Neily, Larry H. James, and Vikrant P. Reddy
On June 23rd, 2021 the Supreme Court decided Lange v. California, a case which concerned...
Housekeeping at the High Court: Supreme Court Declines to Expand Community Caretaking Exception to Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement
Broad exceptions to constitutional rights are antithetical to our constitutional design. In a previous post,...
Caniglia v. Strom: Expanding the Community Caretaking Exception to the Fourth Amendment Threatens Our Right to be Secure in Our Homes
The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their ....
The question of when and how police may enter our homes strikes at the core...