May police officers always enter a home without a warrant when they are pursuing a suspect whom they believe committed a misdemeanor?
This case asks the Supreme Court to weigh the privacy interests of individuals under the Fourth Amendment against the government’s interest in enforcing the law. Petitioner Arthur Lange (“Lange”) was arrested in his garage by a police officer who pursued him for violating traffic laws. Though a police officer with probable cause may generally only enter a home after obtaining a warrant, certain exigent circumstances may justify warrantless home entry, including the pursuit of a felony suspect. The United States, in support of affirmance, argues that this warrantless exception should extend to the pursuit of misdemeanor suspects as a category. Lange and Respondent California, both in support of vacatur, counter that a case-by-case exception is more appropriate given the wide variety of misdemeanor offenses. This case has broad implications for individual privacy interests, public safety, and policing.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the pursuit of a person whom a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant.
In the late evening of October 7, 2016, California Highway Patrol Officer Aaron Weikert observed Petitioner Arthur Gregory Lange (“Lange”) playing music loudly and honking repeatedly while driving. People v. Lange at 2. Officer Weikert began to tail Lange and approached within 500 feet of Lange with no cars in between them. Id. Officer Weikert turned on his overhead lights, signaling his intent to conduct a traffic stop. Id. Lange did not pull over; instead, he pulled into a driveway and entered a garage soon after Officer Weikert activated his lights. Id. Officer Weikert pursued Lange on foot and prevented the garage door from closing. Id. Lange then told Officer Weikert that he had not noticed him. Id.
Lange was arrested and charged with two misdemeanor violations of driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol and with the infraction of operating a vehicle’s sound system at excessive levels. Id. at 1–2. Lange filed a motion to suppress the DUI evidence that Officer Weikert discovered after he entered the garage on the grounds that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment by entering Lange’s home. Id. at 2. The trial court denied Lange’s motion. Id. at 3.
The appellate division of the Sonoma County Superior Court affirmed the denial of Lange’s motion to suppress. Id. at 4. The appellate division found that Officer Weikert had probable cause to believe that Lange sought to avoid detention arising from a pursuit that had begun in a public place when Lange entered his garage. Id. Following the court’s decision, Lange pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor offense of driving under the influence of alcohol and again appealed the denial of his suppression motion. Id. Once again, the appellate division affirmed after finding that Officer Weikert had probable cause to enter Lange’s garage. Id. at 4–5.
The California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District granted Lange’s petition to transfer his case. Id. at 5. The Court of Appeal also affirmed Lange’s conviction, holding that the exigent circumstances exception to an officer’s warrant requirement applies when the officer commences a pursuit in a public place but the fleeing suspect evades arrest by entering a private place. Id. at 11, 14–15. The Court of Appeal found that a reasonable person in Lange’s situation would have realized Officer Weikert was stopping him. Id. at 13. It also found that the warrantless entry was justified because Officer Weikert was in hot pursuit of Lange. Id.
The California Supreme Court rejected Lange’s petition for discretionary review. Brief for Petitioner, Arthur Gregory Lange at 6. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 19, 2020. Id. at 1. Respondent, the State of California (“California”), filed in support of vacatur, agreeing with Lange that a case-specific analysis was more appropriate than a categorical rule that probable cause to arrest a fleeing suspect always justified warrantless entry. Brief for Respondent, State of California in Support of Vacatur at 4. Because neither party involved in the case supported affirmance, the Supreme Court appointed attorney Amanda K. Rice as amicus curiae to argue in support of the judgment below.
EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES AND THE IMPORTANCE OF A JUDICIAL WARRANT
Lange and California argue that the Fourth Amendment’s standard of “reasonableness” generally requires an officer to obtain a judicial warrant before entering a home. Brief for Petitioner, Arthur Gregory Lange at 11, 24; Brief for Respondent, State of California in Support of Vacatur at 12, 16. Lange and California note that exigent circumstances permit a warrantless search only when there is a “compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant”—this includes instances where waiting for a warrant might allow the suspect to escape, destroy evidence, or harm others in the meantime. Brief for Petitioner at 15; Brief for Respondent at 23–24. Lange and California emphasize that this determination requires “a fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances” analysis rather than a categorical approach. Brief for Petitioner at 13, 17; Brief for Respondent at 14. Lange and California maintain that the government’s policing interests are generally not sufficient to overcome the established privacy protections of the home—particularly in a misdemeanor context where Lange argues that the cost of seeking a warrant to the police is usually only a slight inconvenience or delay. Brief for Petitioner at 11, 14; Brief for Respondent at 27. Absent a compelling need, Lange and California maintain, pursuit of a misdemeanant is in itself insufficient to establish exigent circumstances—circumstances that the Supreme Court has thus far only found in cases involving the pursuit of a felony suspect. Brief for Petitioner at 16; Brief for Respondent at 12.
The United States, in support of the judgment below, responds that the relative severity of the intrusion on a suspect’s privacy interests must be balanced against the government’s interests in the search. Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Affirmance at 10. Using this balancing test, the United States argues, the Court has identified a number of exigent circumstances under which a warrantless entry may be found reasonable, including circumstances of where the police are in “hot pursuit” of a suspect. Id. at 8–10. The United States asserts that the hot pursuit rule serves “vital interests in the rule of law and compliance with governmental authority” because allowing a suspect to avoid arrest by fleeing into a home would incentivize individuals to evade the police. Id. at 11–12. Thus, regardless of the seriousness of the offense, the United States argues that the government’s interests during a hot pursuit will normally outweigh the suspect’s privacy interests. Id. at 20. On the other side of the balancing test, the United States maintains that the Fourth Amendment permits officers with probable cause to make a warrantless arrest in public for both felony and misdemeanor offenses, and that a suspect who flees into a home to avoid public arrest has “reduced privacy interests” just like an arrestee because the suspect has chosen to shift the police encounter into a private setting. Id. at 15. Additionally, the United States emphasizes that such an intrusion will nevertheless remain limited, noting that warrantless entry into a home gives an officer only “circumscribed authority” to engage with the suspect rather than full access to searching the home. Id. at 16.
APPLICABILITY OF THE “HOT PURSUIT” RULE TO MISDEMEANORS
Lange contends that a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit rule would be overbroad. Brief for Petitioner at 17. Lange notes that the Court has rejected categorical rules in similar contexts on the basis that overbreadth is impermissible when core Fourth Amendment interests are at issue. Id. at 20. Lange contends that such a rule fails to distinguish between the severity of misdemeanor and felony offenses, even though the circumstances that justify warrantless home entry—such as a threat to public safety—arise far less frequently in the misdemeanor context. Id. at 17–18. Moreover, Lange attests, a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit rule ignores the wide variety of misdemeanor offenses and the particular circumstances giving rise to pursuit. Id. Lange argues that the misdemeanor-pursuit rule does not resemble the “limited class” of existing categorical exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as automobile searches. Id. at 21–22. In contrast to the misdemeanor-pursuit rule, Lange maintains that these exceptions are narrowly tailored: because the justifications for warrantless action are inherent to the circumstances in which they apply—the “ready mobility” of a car, for example—they permit “only a limited number of searches that the law would not otherwise justify.” Id. at 22. In addition, both Lange and California argue that existing precedent is adequate to accommodate the needs of law enforcement, as lower courts recognize some circumstances where a misdemeanor will satisfy the exigent circumstances standard. Id. at 17–18, 24; Brief for Respondent at 30.
The United States replies that the justifications supporting the hot pursuit exception are not limited to the felony context. Brief for the United States at 17. The United States maintains that the Court has not limited its exigent circumstances doctrine to any one type of underlying offense, even if most of its cases have dealt with felony offenders. Id. at 16. Noting that certain misdemeanors are more violent than many felony offenses, the United States argues that it is incorrect to make the “across-the-board assumption a felon is more dangerous than a misdemeanant.” Id. at 18. Similarly, the United States contends, the risk of a misdemeanant evading arrest can be just as great as for a felony suspect: in both cases, “the suspect already has chosen to flee once, suggesting his willingness to take on the risks of flight again.” Id. In fact, the United States contends that a suspect’s attempted escape suggests that he has committed a more serious offense than the one for which he is being pursued; in the moment, an officer may not be aware of the full scope of the crime. Id. As such, the United States argues, a categorical pursuit exception applicable to both felony and misdemeanor pursuit is consistent with the Court’s emphasis on the “essential interest in readily administrable rules.” Id. at 19.
THE COMMON LAW’S INFLUENCE ON THE FOURTH AMENDMENT
Lange and California argue that a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit exception would impermissibly intrude upon the traditional right to privacy that the Fourth Amendment was intended to protect. Brief for Petitioner at 26; Brief for Respondent at 3. When the Constitution was drafted, Lange and California contend, the common law reserved its “highest protection” against state-sanctioned intrusions into the home. Brief for Petitioner at 27; Brief of Respondent at 16-18. While Lange and California note that the common law included a categorical pursuit exception for suspected felons, they maintain that warrantless home entries were considered “a grave intrusion permitted only in specific circumstances” such as during violent encounters with police. Brief for Petitioner at 28–30; Brief of Respondent at 19–20. Accordingly, Lange and California argue, the common law’s significant protections against home intrusions suggest that the Constitution has never permitted a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit rule. Brief for Petitioner at 26, 31; Brief of Respondent at 20–21.
The United States counters that the common-law distinction between felony and misdemeanor offenses is no longer instructive. Brief for the United States at 24. While the difference between the two classes of crimes was historically “broad and deep,” the United States asserts it is now “minor and often arbitrary.” Id. Moreover, the United States argues that different common law sources from the Founding Era recognized the legality of warrantless entry into a home based on pursuit of a misdemeanant—for example, when an officer observed a suspect committing a “breach of the peace” and then fleeing into a home. Id. at 24–25. Similarly, the United States maintains that the common-law prohibition on breaking a door to enter a home without consent did not apply to entering through an open door; as such, a suspect who enters a home during a pursuit would have exposed the home to a search at common law. Id. at 26.
BALANCING PRIVACY AND SAFETY INTERESTS
Six states and the District of Columbia (“Illinois et al.”), in support of Lange, argue that the government has an interest in the individual right to privacy because infringements on that right damage collective participation in public life. Brief of Amici Curiae Illinois et al., in Support of Petitioner at 25–26, 28. Accordingly, Illinois et al. argue that always allowing warrantless entries in pursuit of suspected misdemeanants will actually harm the government’s interests. Id. Project for Privacy & Surveillance Accountability and Restore the Fourth, Inc., also in support of Lange, warn that a categorical exception for warrantless entries could lead to increased warrantless electronic surveillance, thereby threatening Americans’ digital privacy interests too. Brief of Amici Curiae Project for Privacy & Surveillance Accountability and Restore the Fourth, Inc., in Support of Petitioner at 19.
Illinois et al. further contend that a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit exception harms the government’s interest in safe policing because the risk of injury to police officers associated with warrantless entries is substantial in relation to the need to immediately arrest misdemeanants. Brief of Illinois et al. at 10–12. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, in support of Lange, claim that unannounced home entries by the police also increase the likelihood of personal injury and property damage. Brief of Amici Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, in Support of Petitioner at 4.
Amanda K. Rice (“Rice”), joining the United States in support of affirmance, counters that a pursuit initiated by a police officer in a public place greatly reduces the fleeing suspect’s privacy interests and that a warrantless entry adds only limited intrusion. Brief of Court-Appointed Amicus Curiae Amanda K. Rice, in Support of Affirmance at 17–18. Rice posits that a suspect’s choice to expose their home and the limited scope of “hot pursuit” searches will not significantly harm that suspect’s diminished privacy rights. Id. at 18. Professor Steven Penney, in support of affirmance, points to the experience of Canada to illustrate that an exception for warrantless entries that carefully delineates limitations will not lead to unjustified incursions into Americans’ privacy. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Professor Steven Penney, in Support of Affirmance at 14–15.
EFFECTIVE POLICING AND ADMINISTRABILITY
The DKT Liberty Project et al. (“DKT et al.”), in support of Lange, argue that a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit exception would incentivize abusive tactics by officers. Brief of Amici Curiae DKT Liberty Project et al., in Support of Petitioner at 7–8. DKT et al. warn that resulting police overreach could heighten race-based policing practices and decrease public trust in police. Id. at 10, 12–13. American Civil Liberties Union et al. (“ACLU et al.”), in support of Lange, assert that requiring police to obtain a warrant in hot pursuit situations would not encourage fleeing because police can procure warrants remotely within minutes. See Brief of Amici Curiae American Civil Liberties Union et al., in Support of Petitioner at 21–22. ACLU et al. argue that the warrant requirement would not introduce administrability problems because police would only need to assess the risk of potential evidence destruction, an assessment already required by the exigent circumstances test. See Id. at 22.
Fourteen states (“Ohio et al.”), in support of affirmance, argue that the government’s interest in safe policing would be damaged by disallowing warrantless entries in pursuit of suspected misdemeanants. Brief of Amici Curiae Ohio et al., in Support of Affirmance at 26. Ohio et al. assert that requiring officers to abandon pursuit to procure a warrant would incentivize fleeing and increase risk of harm to officers by forcing them to engage in more chases than they otherwise would. Id. Ohio et al. contend that Lange’s proposed rule would particularly incentivize drunk drivers to flee towards their homes, thereby heightening public safety risks. Id. at 26–27.
Los Angeles County Police Chiefs’ Association, also in support of affirmance, argues a categorical misdemeanor-pursuit exception would not incentivize police abuse because existing policies, officer training, and internal review protocols help to encourage discretion and curb undesirable behavior by individual officers. Brief of Amicus Curiae Los Angeles County Police Chiefs’ Association, in Support of Affirmance at 6, 14. Furthermore, Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and California District Attorneys Association (“D.A.’s Office et al.”), in support of affirmance, assert that warrant applications frequently take several hours, allowing suspects to destroy evidence or prepare for police entry in the meantime. Brief of Amici Curiae Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and California District Attorneys Association, in Support of Affirmance at 28–30. D.A.’s Office et al. further maintain that a case-by-case approach would generate significant complexity by forcing officers in dynamic situations to speculate whether a crime is a felony or misdemeanor before acting. Id. at 19–20.
- Jordan S. Rubin, High Court to Review Warrantless Searches for Misdemeanors, Bloomberg Law (Oct. 19, 2020).
- Jack Rodgers, Warrantless-Entry Tangle Faces High Court Unraveling, Courthouse News Service (Oct. 19, 2020).
- Sherry F. Colb, Can a Misdemeanor Count as an “Emergency” for Purposes of Skipping the Warrant?, Verdict (Dec. 30, 2020).