LANGE v CALIFORNIA SCOTUS Restricts Search of Home Without Warrant

Arthur Lange drove past a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music with his windows down and honking his horn.  Asking for such attention is not usually a smart thing to do.  The officer began  following Lange and soon after, turned on his overhead lights to signal Lange to pull over.  Rather than stopping, Lange drove a short distance (100 yards) to his driveway and entered his attached garage.  The officer followed Lange into the garage.  There, he questioned Lange and, after observing signs of intoxication, put him through field sobriety tests.

Lange was charged with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of alcohol and a noise infraction.  Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment.  The People argued entry was permissible because the officer had probable cause to arrest for failing to comply with a police signal and that pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant “always qualifies as an exigent circumstance authorizing warrantless home entry.” The Superior Court denied Lange’s motion to suppress.  The California Court of Appeal agreed with that decision.    The California Supreme Court denied review.

The general rule is that “police officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect”. The United States Supreme Court granted review to decide whether the Fourth Amendment always permits an officer to enter a home without a warrant in pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect.   The answer – no, pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home.  An officer must consider all of the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency and no time to secure a warrant. So, unless you can show a warrantless entry was necessary to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or protect an occupant from imminent injury, imminent destruction of evidence or to prevent a suspect’s escape from the home– don’t enter without a warrant.  However, the rule that you may enter a home without a warrant when in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon is still accepted.

So, for example, pursuing a fleeing suspect trying to avoid arrest for misdemeanor DUI into his home will not be sufficient, by itself to always authorize entry into the home under the hot pursuit exception.  There must be additional evidence creating the exigency establishing no time to obtain a warrant.

The Supreme Court stated a case-by-case review of exigency is necessary when deciding whether the flight of an individual suspected of violating a misdemeanor justifies a warrantless home entry. 

When a suspected offense is “minor” (and there has been no flight), police officers usually do not face the kind of emergency justifying a warrantless home entry.  Add a suspect’s flight, however, and the analysis changes – but not quite enough to justify an “always” rule.  In most cases though, flight creates the need for police to act swiftly.  But not every case of misdemeanor flight creates such a need.

Take Away

Ultimately, this case will not significantly change how you do your job.  The Supreme Court acknowledges that using a case-by-case approach will allow a warrantless home entry, in most cases.  So, the officer who pursues a minor offender into his home will need to document in his/her report what “emergency” (or harm) might occur while taking the time to obtain a warrant before entry. 

The officer in the Lange case will now have the opportunity to state to a court that, based on the actions of the suspect, including his flight, he suspected Lange may have been driving while intoxicated – the evidence would dissipate (be destroyed) during the time it took to obtain the warrant – and the result in the case will be identical.

Stay Safe and Healthy!

Robert Rabe is Stone Busailah, LLP’s writs and appeals specialist. His 41 years practicing law include 16 years as a Barrister, Supreme Court of England and Wales, practicing in London, England.

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