Lange v. California: “Hot Pursuit” Doesn’t Necessarily Justify Warrantless Entry
Does “hot pursuit” always justify a warrantless entry into someone’s home?
In Lange v. California, decided in June of 2021, the US Supreme Court said, “No.”
If a person is suspected of committing a minor offense, and if there is no likelihood of destruction of evidence, further flight, danger to the officer, or other exigent circumstances, the officer must get a warrant before entering the person’s home…
Hot Pursuit and Exigent Circumstances
Come back with a warrant…
If the police want to enter your home to make an arrest or to search your property, they need a warrant, right?
The Fourth Amendment says that:
- You have the right to not be subject to unreasonable searches or seizures by the government – including search or seizure of “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” and
- If a warrant is issued for search or seizure, it must be supported by oath or affirmation that states probable cause, and the warrant must particularly describe the place to be searched or the persons or things to be seized.
Despite this, the courts have carved out numerous exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, including the “exigent circumstances” exception and the “hot pursuit” exception.
But when do exigent circumstances or hot pursuit justify a warrantless entry into a person’s home?
Minor Offenses v. Felonies
In Lange v. California, a police officer followed Lange after Lange passed the officer playing loud music and honking his horn. Just before Lange turned into his driveway, the officer turned on his blue lights – instead of stopping, Lange continued to pull into his garage, entered his house, and ignored the officer.
The officer followed him into his home (without a warrant), conducted field sobriety tests, and then arrested Lange for DUI.
Lange’s conviction for DUI was overturned by the US Supreme Court. Because the offense was a minor misdemeanor and there was no danger of evidence being destroyed, and even though the officer was in “hot pursuit,” following Lange with his blue lights on, the Court held that the officer should have gotten a warrant before entering Lange’s home.
What Types of Exigent Circumstances Justify a Warrantless Entry?
Most attorneys learned in law school that “hot pursuit” is an exception that always justifies a warrantless entry into someone’s home – one of many examples of “exigent circumstances” that would make a warrantless entry reasonable (and therefore not a Fourth Amendment violation).
No longer – the Court in Lange v. California was clear that “hot pursuit” is not a categorical exception to the search warrant requirement and that each case must be decided based on its unique facts.
Dissipation of Alcohol in the Blood
The US Supreme Court has previously held that the potential for dissipation of alcohol in a DUI suspect’s blood is not an exigent circumstance that justifies a warrantless entry into someone’s home.
For example, in Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U. S. 740, 753 (1984), where a drunk driver abandoned his vehicle and walked home, the officers were not justified in entering his home to arrest him, despite the possibility of the dissipation of alcohol in his blood, because the potential charges were minor and there was no likelihood of flight:
The State contended that exigent circumstances supported the entry because the driver’s “blood-alcohol level might have dissipated while the police obtained a warrant.” Id., at 754. We rejected that argument on the ground that the driver had been charged with only a minor offense. “[T]he gravity of the underlying offense,” we reasoned, is “an important factor to be considered when determining whether any exigency exists.” Id., at 753. “[W]hen only a minor offense has been committed” (again, without any flight), there is reason to question whether a compelling law enforcement need is present; so it is “particularly appropriate” to “hesitat[e] in finding exigent circumstances.” Id., at 750. And we concluded: “[A]pplication of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense” is involved. Id., at 753.
Even the possibility of flight does not automatically mean police can enter your home without a warrant. The Court points out that where a person is suspected of minor, non-violent conduct, but there is no evidence that they will flee again or destroy evidence, the police can take the time to get a warrant:
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. Recall that misdemeanors can target minor, non-violent conduct. See supra, at 8–9. Welsh held that when that is so, officers can probably take the time to get a warrant. And at times that will be true even when a misdemeanant has forced the police to pursue him (especially given that “pursuit” may cover just a few feet of ground, see supra, at 6). Those suspected of minor offenses may flee for innocuous reasons and in nonthreatening ways.
One situation where the Court indicates they will allow warrantless entry into a home is where there is evidence that a suspect may destroy evidence – this will often be the case in drug investigations.
If police are pursuing a suspect who may be carrying drugs that could be flushed or otherwise destroyed in the home, the court is likely to uphold a warrantless entry, just as they would uphold a warrantless entry into a home to prevent the destruction of other types of evidence, to secure a threat to the officer, or to prevent an imminent escape from the home:
Our Fourth Amendment precedents thus point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight. That approach will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry. When the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home—the police may act without waiting.
The Court also distinguishes between minor misdemeanor offenses (like DUI) and more serious felony offenses – pointing to the English common law which permitted warrantless entries to arrest a person who had just committed a serious felony (offenses punishable by death), but which did not allow warrantless entries to arrest a person suspected of minor offenses:
There was an oft-discussed exception: An officer, according to the day’s treatises, could enter a house to pursue a felon. The felony category then was a good deal narrower than now. Many modern felonies were “classified as misdemeanors” at common law, with the felony label mostly reserved for crimes “punishable by death.” Garner, 471 U. S., at 13–14; see 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 98 (1791) (Blackstone).
The Court notes that the Crown’s violations of this rule were one of the complaints that led to the American Revolution and were the motivation for the inclusion of the Fourth Amendment in our Bill of Rights…
What can we take from Lange v. California?
In most cases, warrantless entries will still be permitted when an officer is in “hot pursuit.” At a minimum, however, an officer must stop and get a warrant before entering a home when:
- The suspect has committed a minor misdemeanor offense (including DUI),
- The “pursuit” was brief (according to the Court, Lange traveled approximately four seconds to reach his garage),
- There is no likelihood that evidence will be destroyed (dissipation of alcohol does not count), and
- There is no likelihood of further flight or escape from the home.
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