The mere flight of a person suspected of a minor crime, without more, does not allow police officers to enter homes without warrants, the court said.
June 23, 2021
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, which has said that police officers do not need a warrant to enter a home when they are in “hot pursuit of a fleeing felon,” ruled on Wednesday that the same thing is not always true when the crime in question was as minor as playing a car stereo too loudly.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a seven-justice majority, said the mere fact that someone suspected of a minor crime fled from the police did not justify entering a home. She added that other factors could change the calculus.
“We have no doubt that in a great many cases flight creates a need for police to act swiftly,” she wrote. “A suspect may flee, for example, because he is intent on discarding evidence. Or his flight may show a willingness to flee yet again, while the police await a warrant. But no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight poses such dangers.”
The case concerned Arthur Lange, who had retired to Sonoma, Calif., after a career in commercial real estate. Driving home around 10 p.m. in the fall of 2016, with the windows down, loud music on and occasionally honking the car’s horn, he caught the attention of a state highway patrol officer.
The officer, Aaron Weikert, believing that Mr. Lange had committed noise infractions, followed him and, as Mr. Lange neared his home, activated the patrol car’s overhead lights.
Mr. Lange drove into his garage, and as its door began to descend, Officer Weikert stopped the door with his foot, forced it to reopen and confronted Mr. Lange, who appeared to be intoxicated. A blood test later showed that his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit.
Mr. Lange was charged with driving under the influence, a misdemeanor, and playing music too loudly, an infraction. He moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that Officer Weikert’s entry into his home had violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
Among other things, Mr. Lange said he had not seen the patrol car’s flashing lights, did not know he had been ordered to stop and so could not be said to be fleeing. A state appeals court ruled against him, saying that the hot pursuit was enough to allow entry into his home.
In an unusual move, California did not defend the lower court’s decision in its favor and instead urged the Supreme Court to rule that only felonies justify entries without warrants.
Because neither side supported the appeals court’s ruling in the case, Lange v. California, No. 20-18, the justices appointed Amanda K. Rice, a former law clerk to Justice Kagan, to argue that misdemeanors always justify warrantless entries.
Justice Kagan rejected that categorical position.
“The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home,” she wrote. “An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is 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.”
The court sent the case back to the lower courts for a fresh look in light of Wednesday’s ruling.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. issued a heated concurring opinion questioning the majority’s approach and asserting that flight was enough to justify entering homes without a warrant.
“Hot pursuit is not merely a setting in which other exigent circumstances justifying warrantless entry might emerge,” he wrote. “It is itself an exigent circumstance. And we have never held that whether an officer may enter a home to complete an arrest turns on what the fleeing individual was suspected of doing before he took off, let alone whether that offense would later be charged as a misdemeanor or felony.”
Though he differed with the majority, the chief justice also would have sent the case back for further proceedings, but to examine a different question. He said it was not clear that Mr. Lange had been fleeing at all.
When the case was argued in February, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who joined the chief justice’s concurrence, expressed qualms on that same point after reviewing video taken by Officer Weikert’s dashboard camera.
“The video shows there was no chase and Mr. Lange really didn’t flee,” Justice Alito said, adding, “Hot pursuit has to be hot and it has to be a pursuit.”