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Police Cannot Simply Barge Into Home In Pursuit of Someone Suspected of Misdemeanor Offense

Date Posted to Site: 06/24/2021

In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lange v. California that the police are not universally authorized to make warrantless entries into private homes based on an officer’s suspicion that a person has committed a misdemeanor-level offense.

In this case, a police officer followed Arthur Gregory Lange one night as Lange drove home listening to loud music and honking his horn. As Lange approached his own driveway, the officer activated his signal lights and continued to trail him. Lange opened his own garage door, pulled into the garage, and tried to close the electric garage door before the officer could follow him.

The officer, however, exited his squad car, stuck his foot under Lange’s garage door, and stopped the door from closing. When the officer got close to Lange, the officer allegedly smelled alcohol on Lange’s breath. The officer then ordered Lange out of the garage for a DUI investigation.

All this was done without a warrant. The officer maintained that under the Fourth Amendment, no warrant was necessary given that he had been in hot pursuit of Lange — an example of “exigent circumstances” that justify a warrantless search under a long-recognized exception to the constitutional requirement of a warrant as a general matter of law.

The Supreme Court decided that while suspicion of some misdemeanors might form the basis of a proper warrantless search, the rule is not absolute across all misdemeanors.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the Court, explaining the rationale behind the long-standing rule which allows warrantless searches in certain more serious circumstances:

One important exception is for exigent circumstances. It applies when “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.” The exception enables law enforcement officers to handle “emergencies”—situations presenting a “compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.

Misdemeanors, however, range in seriousness from the violent to the trivial; therefore, the court ruled that the commission of a misdemeanor should not trigger any across-the-board right for police to enter a home without a warrant. Rather, Kagan explained, the gravity of the offense and the surrounding circumstances must be examined on case-by-case basis in order to determine whether the police are justified in departing from the usual Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant be issued by a neutral magistrate upon a showing of probable cause prior to any police search.

Although the Court’s ruling was a win for Lange, it does not provide a basis to invalidate an entire class of warrantless searches. The case has been remanded to the lower court to determine whether the officer’s entry had been appropriate.

(excerpted from

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