The United States Supreme Court recently answered a question that has caused confusion for courts, criminal defense lawyers, and their clients. Is it constitutional for police to enter a residence without a warrant if they’re pursuing someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor offense? The short answer is: a lot of the time, yes, but not always. Here’s how the Court sees it.
The “hot pursuit of a suspected felon” exception to getting a search warrant
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. The Founders wrote the Fourth Amendment chiefly to protect against police entering a home without a valid search warrant.
Accordingly, police can enter a home without a warrant in only a few narrowly-defined circumstances. One of those is when they are engaged in “hot pursuit” of a person suspected of committing a felony — a crime broadly defined as punishable by more than one year in prison. Hot pursuit of a felon is considered an “exigent circumstance” in which police do not have enough time to get a warrant and must instead enter a residence immediately to make an arrest, lest the suspect escape or destroy evidence.
But what about chasing a misdemeanor suspect?
Allowing police to forego getting a warrant before chasing someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor into a home, however, has given many courts and criminal defense attorneys reason to pause. Many misdemeanors are truly minor infractions — violating dog leash laws, for example, or ignoring “stay off the grass” signs at a public park. In those cases, it seems like overreach to allow police to breach the threshold of a home to make an arrest.
But, not always. Some states also define certain violent crimes, like assault, as misdemeanors. In those cases, courts have struggled to find a reason to treat the need to arrest a suspect immediately any differently than in the case of a suspected felony.
So, should police pursuing someone who may have committed one of those offenses always have the right to chase them into their homes without a warrant, the way they can with suspected felons?
In Lange v. California, the Supreme Court answered that question with a “No, but…”. The court rejected a categorical rule that would authorize police to go without a search warrant during hot pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect in every case. Instead, the Court held that police in pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine if a true “exigent circumstance” exists justifying a warrantless entry.
However — and this is the “but” in the decision — the Court also recognized that in the vast majority of hot pursuits of misdemeanor suspects, exigency probably would exist. The Court merely limited its ruling to say that a misdemeanor suspect retreating into his or her home to avoid an interaction with a police officer does not automatically, in-and-of-itself, create an exigent circumstance authorizing a warrantless entry.
The Supreme Court’s Lange v. California decision recognizes that the “hot pursuit” exception to the Fourth Amendment has limits when applied to misdemeanor suspects. But, in practical terms, those limits are pretty narrow. Police will likely continue to have broad license to chase a suspect who flees from them into a home in order to make an arrest.