(special thanks to co-author: Sebastian Frazier)
You’re driving home from a night on the town after catching a meal and some drinks at a local bar. You decide to drive home with your windows down and music loud which attracts the attention of a nearby highway patrol officer. Curious at your peculiar driving patterns and disruptive noise, the officer decides to follow your vehicle (unbeknownst to you). As your nearing home, the officer turns on his lights and indicates that you should pull over. You don’t notice the officer’s signal and instead keep driving up your driveway and into your garage. As you open your door to step out of the vehicle, the officer follows you inside your legal residence and begins to question you. Only a little while after, you’re arrested for a misdemeanor charge: driving under the influence.
This situation is exactly what happened to Arthur Lange back in 2016 in California. During his trial, Lange attempted to file a motion to suppress the evidence that the officer collected after stepping foot in Lange’s garage, arguing that it violated his fourth amendment right to be secure from unreasonable searches absent a warrant. Ultimately, the court dismissed the motion claiming the officer was lawful in the entry of Lange’s residence because he was in “hot pursuit” of a suspect that he had probable cause to arrest. Though Lange was convicted in the lower court, he later requested a reversal on the basis that ‘hot pursuit’ rulings should not always apply to misdemeanor charges. Unorthodoxly, the state of California did not represent the lower court’s decision and instead urged the supreme court to use a case-by-case analysis concerning the application of the hot pursuit doctrine to misdemeanors. They argued that outside of emergency scenarios, minor infractions should not be enough to justify violations of the fourth amendment as they don’t present the same sense of urgency as felonies. In agreement, the supreme court ruled that pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant does not categorically justify entry into a home without a warrant. As such, the ability of officers to apply warrantless entries depends on exigent circumstances and factors rather than as a given rule.
While Lange v. California does find that hot pursuit is itself insufficient to justify warrantless entry for a misdemeanor crime, it does not find that hot pursuit will never justify such an entry. The case merely declares that entry is not justified in all circumstances but allows officer discretion based on exigent circumstances to decide whether entry is justified. The ultimate takeaway is that if warrantless entry is necessary to prevent interfering factors with enforcement of the law such as the destruction of evidence or escape from the residence, then it remains lawful. However, officers must consider all circumstances of a situation before entering and must ascertain a warrant if they are reasonably capable of doing so without risking the enforcement of the law being compromised.