The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 on Wednesday in Lange v. California that the police are not universally authorized to make warrantless entries into private homes based on an officer’s suspicion that a person has committed a misdemeanor-level offense.
The case presented a tough question for the Court, and it became clear during oral arguments that justices were loathe to create a categorical rule would extend an exception to the warrant rule to every case involving a suspected misdemeanor.
The facts are as follows. A police officer followed Arthur Gregory Lange one night as Lange drove home listening to loud music and honking his horn. As Lange approached his own driveway, the officer (who had, at that point activated his signal lights), continued to trail him. Lange opened his own garage door, pulled into the garage, and tried to close the electric garage door before the officer could follow him.
The officer, however, exited his squad car, stuck his foot under Lange’s garage door, and stopped the door from closing. When the officer got close to Lange, the officer allegedly smelled alcohol on Lange’s breath. The officer then ordered Lange out of the garage for a DUI investigation.
All this was done without a warrant. The officer maintained that under the Fourth Amendment, no warrant was necessary given that he had been in hot pursuit of Lange — an example of “exigent circumstances” that justify a warrantless search under a long-recognized exception to the constitutional requirement of a warrant as a general matter of law.
The case was complicated by the nature of the crime upon which the officer had based his warrantless search; the officer maintained that he believed Lange had committed misdemeanor violations of the California Vehicle Code by playing music and honking.
The Supreme Court decided that while suspicion of some misdemeanors might form the basis of a proper warrantless search, the rule is not absolute across all misdemeanors.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the Court, explaining the rationale behind the long-standing rule which allows warrantless searches in certain more serious circumstances:
One important exception is for exigent circumstances. It applies when “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.” The exception enables law enforcement officers to handle “emergenc[ies]”—situations presenting a “compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.
Misdemeanors, however, range in seriousness from the violent to the trivial; therefore, the court ruled that the commission of a misdemeanor should not trigger any across-the-board right for police to enter a home without a warrant. Rather, Kagan explained, the gravity of the offense and the surrounding circumstances must be examined on case-by-case basis in order to determine whether the police are justified in departing from the usual Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant be issued by a neutral magistrate upon a showing of probable cause prior to any police search.
Although the Court’s ruling was a win for Lange, it is by no means a basis to invalidate an entire class of warrantless searches. Moreover, Lange’s win may be short-lived, as the case is remanded for the lower court to determine whether the officer’s entry had been appropriate.
Kagan explained that the ruling declined to create a categorical rule applicable to all suspected misdemeanants:
When the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home—the police may act without waiting. And those circumstances, as described just above, include the flight itself. But the need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry, even absent 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.
While all the justices agreed with the outcome in the Lange case, several justices opted to pen their own concurrences, elaborating on their reasoning.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote his own opinion, which was joined by Justice Samuel Alito — and it sounded more like a dissent than a concurrence. Specifically, Roberts and Alito took issue with the Court’s holding that flight itself is insufficient to trigger an exception to the warrant requirement.
“Suppose a police officer on patrol responds to a report of a man assaulting a teenager,” Roberts hypothesized. He laid out the hypothetical problem as follows:
Arriving at the scene, the officer sees the teenager vainly trying to ward off the assailant. The officer attempts to place the assailant under arrest, but he takes off on foot. He leads the officer on a chase over several blocks as the officer yells for him to stop. With the officer closing in, the suspect leaps over a fence and then stands on a home’s front yard. He claims it’s his home and tells the officer to stay away. What is the officer to do?
Roberts reasoned that both the Fourth Amendment and common sense support the officer’s right to proceed without a warrant. Requiring the police to obtain a warrant in this situation would cause delay such that “the suspect may stroll into the home and then dash out the back door,” or perhaps worse, that the suspect could “get a gun and take aim from inside.”
According to Roberts, the issue isn’t whether the suspect may have committed a misdemeanor or a felony, but rather, that the person fled. “It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule” which excuses the need for a warrant, explained the Chief Justice. “The Court errs by departing from that well-established rule.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned his own concurrence highlighting his agreement with Roberts’ point, but Kavanaugh took a distinct “there’s more that unites us than divides us” approach to the case.
“[I]n my view,” Kavanaugh wrote, “there is almost no daylight in practice between the Court’s opinion and THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s opinion concurring in the judgment.”
Calling Roberts’ concurrence “thoughtful,” Kavanaugh explained that in his view, fleeing misdemeanants “will almost always also involve a recognized exigent circumstance — such as a risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others,” and that therefore, Kagan’s and Roberts’ approaches may contain distinctions without meaningful differences.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored a concurrence of his own, which was joined in part by Justice Kavanaugh. Thomas wrote:
I write separately to note two things: the general case-by-case rule that the Court announces today is subject to historical, categorical exceptions; and under our precedent, the federal exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence discovered in the course of pursuing a fleeing suspect.
Justice Thomas detailed some examples of relevant “historical, categorical exceptions,” such as a person escaping after having been arrested, or a person en route to committing a felony.
On another topic entirely, Justice Thomas took the opportunity to make a point with which Justice Kavanaugh agreed: “even if the state courts on remand conclude that the officer’s entry here was unlawful, the federal exclusionary rule does not require suppressing any evidence.”
If the court below ultimately finds that entering Lange’s home was illegal, Lange might have some remedy at law — but that remedy does not require that evidence the officer obtained be suppressed.
[image via Erin Schaff/pool/AFP via Getty Images]
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