ARLINGTON, Va.—The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously rejected a sweeping rule that would have allowed police to enter people’s homes without a warrant just to pursue suspected misdemeanants. Today’s opinion in Lange v. California echoes points stressed in an amicus brief submitted by the Institute for Justice.
The case arose from a minor traffic offense. Late one night, a California police officer noticed Arthur Lange blaring loud music and honking his horn while driving (a misdemeanor) and started tailing him. Just before Lange turned into his driveway, the officer flashed his lights, but Lange did not notice and entered his garage (another misdemeanor). The officer parked behind Lange and entered the garage. Because the officer did not have a warrant, Lange challenged the entry under the Fourth Amendment.
The California Court of Appeal rejected Lange’s challenge, reasoning (as many other courts had) that an officer’s “hot pursuit” of a suspected misdemeanant—no matter how trivial or harmless—always justifies a warrantless home entry. More precisely, the court held that so-called misdemeanor pursuits always constitute “exigent circumstances,” which is one of the major exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
As the Institute for Justice had urged in its brief, the unanimous Court held that “flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home.” Instead, the Court explained, “officer[s] must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency,” like “imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home.”
“This decision was a victory for all Americans’ right to be secure in their homes,” said IJ Attorney Joshua Windham. “The Court rightly holds that if police want to burst into our homes—our castles—to pursue trivial offenses, the facts must show a true emergency. Otherwise, they need to get a warrant.”
“It’s encouraging to see the Court continuing to reject broad exceptions to the warrant requirement,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “At the end of the day, the point of the Fourth Amendment isn’t to make life easier for police, but to make us secure in our persons and property. The Court’s decision honors that purpose.”