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On June 22, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Lange v. California, where the Court examined the Fourth Amendment and the so-called “hot pursuit” doctrine. Specifically, the Supreme Court was asked whether a police officer’s pursuit of a person who has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant. Ultimately, the Court found that the Fourth Amendment does not allow for such a categorical exception to the warrant requirement.

In Lange, a police officer witnessed the petitioner, Mr. Arthur Lange, playing loud music with his windows down and repeatedly honking his horn as he drove past the officer. The officer began following Mr. Lange from a distance and activated his cruiser’s lights and sirens. At this time, Mr. Lange was approximately 100 feet from his home, which had an attached garage. Rather than stopping, Mr. Lange pulled into his garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage and began questioning him. Mr. Lange denied seeing the officer follow him while driving home. He was subsequently charged with an OUI and other minor motor vehicle infractions, all misdemeanors.

Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement and the Exigent Circumstances Exception

Generally, the Fourth Amendment safeguards citizens against excessive police intrusion into their life and property. Specifically, it provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” “[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals,” and at the Amendment’s very core “stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.” In Lange, the Court in noted that “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” Generally, this reasonableness standard requires police to obtain a warrant before a law enforcement officer can enter a home without permission.

The warrant requirement does have certain exceptions, however. For example, a long-recognized exception to the warrant requirement is when “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.” This exception, otherwise known as the exigent circumstances exception, allows law enforcement officers to handle emergency situations that present a “compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” See Riley v. California. Typical circumstances where the exigent circumstances exception has been held to apply are when police are attempting to prevent imminent injury, the destruction of evidence, or a suspect’s escape.

Application of the Exigent Circumstances Exception to Fleeing Misdemeanor Suspect

As noted above, the Court in Lange was specifically tasked with addressing whether a police officer’s “hot pursuit” of a person who is suspected of committing a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance for Fourth Amendment purposes. In addressing this case, the Court noted that courts are divided over whether the Fourth Amendment always permits an officer to enter a home without a warrant in pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect. The Court highlighted that some courts have adopted such a categorical rule, while others have required a case-specific showing of exigent circumstances.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that a categorical exception to the warrant requirement when police were pursuing an individual suspected of committing a misdemeanor was incompatible with the Fourth Amendment. The Court instead held that cases such as Mr. Lange’s, which involved the pursuit of a suspect accused of a misdemeanor, must be decided on a case-by-case basis, explaining that the gravity of the underlying offense is an important factor when it comes to examining whether any exigency exists. The Court found that when only a minor offense has been committed (a misdemeanor), as opposed to a felony, there is not a compelling need for law enforcement that justifies ignoring the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights. Important to the Court’s analysis was that although misdemeanors vary widely, they may be “minor.”

In conclusion, when the totality of circumstances shows an emergency, such as a threat to the officer, imminent harm to others, probable destruction of evidence, or fleeing from the scene, police may act without waiting to obtain a warrant. However, when the nature of crime, flight, and surrounding facts do not show such exigency, officers must respect the Fourth Amendment and need to get a warrant before entering a private residence.