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Supreme Court Reverses Question of Exigent Circumstances in Lange

The Court in Lange stated that a misdemeanant running into their house did not always create exigent circumstances.

Lange's Contact With Police

Lange drove past a police officer honking his horn and listening to loud music with the windows down. The police office followed Lange and turned on his overhead lights, a signal that Lange should pull over.

Lange continued driving and drove into the attached garage in his driveway. The officer followed and questioned him inside the garage.

The officer found him to show signs of intoxication and engaged in field sobriety tests. After the tests, Lange was subjected to a blood test. His blood alcohol level showed to be more than three times the legal limit.

Lange was charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol and a "lower level" noise infraction. There is no information in the court opinion about a charge for evading arrest.

Lange's Suppression Motion

Lange filed a suppression motion requesting asking all evidence obtained after the officer entered the garage to be thrown out. Lange argued that the Fourth Amendment prohibited this warrantless search. The government opposed, stating the officer had probable cause to arrest Lange for "failure to comply with a police signal." Yet, this charge was not listed or mentioned.

The government also argued the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant was always an exigent circumstance.  In turn, this authorized a warrantless home entry. Lange's motion was denied and the California appellate court and California top appellate court also confirmed.

The California top appellate court said Lange's failure to immediately pull over when the officer flashed his lights created probable cause to arrest him for a misdemeanor. The court also stated a misdemeanor suspect could "not defeat an arrest which has been set in motion in a public place” by“retreat[ing] into” a house or other “private place.” The court stated that an "officer's hot pursuit’ into the house to prevent the suspect from frustrating the arrest” is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances “exception to the warrant requirement.”

The Fourth Amendment and Exigent Circumstances

Generally speaking, the Fourth Amendment 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." The word "reasonable" is doing a great deal of work in this explanation. Generally speaking, an officer needs to get a judicial warrant before entering a home without permission.

There are exceptions. One such exception is "exigent circumstances." That exception applies when “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.” These emergencies include things where there is a "compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant."

Examples of this include entering a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance, protecting someone from imminent injury, preventing a suspect's escape or preventing someone from destroying evidence. This is normally evaluated on a case by case basis. Here, the court is looking at how should this be applied to someone who is suspected of committing a misdemeanor who flees from police and gets into their home.

The Court's Decision

Misdemeanor Was Minor with No Exigent Circumstances

The Supreme Court indicated that the key to misdemeanors is that they usually limit prison time to one year and are usually minor. The court cited several examples of misdemeanors for demonstration purposes.

The court indicated that when minor offenses are involved the police do not usually face the kind of emergency, or exigent circumstance, that can justify a warrantless home entry. The court stated that there is no categorical rule to pursue a misdemeanant into a house:

"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. And those circumstances, as described just above, include the flight itself.3 But the need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry, even absent a law enforcement emergency.When the nature of the crime, the nature of the flight, and surrounding facts present no such exigency, officers must respect the sanctity of the home—which means that they must get a warrant."

The Reversal

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the California Courts and sent the case back down. No. 20–18

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