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Lange v. California, 594 U.S. (2021)



certiorari to the court of appeal of california, first appellate division

No. 20–18. Argued February 24, 2021—Decided June 23, 2021

This case arises from a police officer’s warrantless entry into petitioner Arthur Lange’s garage. Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music and honking his horn. The officer began to follow Lange and soon after turned on his overhead lights to signal that Lange should pull over. Rather than stopping, Lange drove a short distance to his driveway and entered his attached garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage. He questioned Lange and, after observing signs of intoxication, put him through field sobriety tests. A later blood test showed that Lange’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit. 

The State charged Lange with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The Superior Court denied Lange’s motion, and its appellate division affirmed. The California Court of Appeal also affirmed. It concluded that Lange’s failure to pull over when the officer flashed his lights created probable cause to arrest Lange for the misdemeanor of failing to comply with a police signal. And it stated that Lange could not defeat an arrest begun in a public place by retreating into his home. The pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant, the court held, is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The California Supreme Court denied review.

Held: Under the Fourth Amendment, pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not always—that is, categorically—justify a warrantless entry into a home. Pp. 3–16.

(a) The Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents counsel in favor of a case-by-case assessment of exigency when deciding whether a suspected misdemeanant’s flight justifies a warrantless home entry. The Fourth Amendment ordinarily requires that a law enforcement officer obtain a judicial warrant before entering a home without permission.  Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, 382. But an officer may make a warrantless entry when “the exigencies of the situation,” considered in a case-specific way, create “a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.”  Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 460; Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 149. The Court has found that such exigencies may exist when an officer must act to prevent imminent injury, the destruction of evidence, or a suspect’s escape.

The amicus contends that a suspect’s flight always supplies the exigency needed to justify a warrantless home entry and that the Court endorsed such a categorical approach in United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38. The Court disagrees. In upholding a warrantless entry made during a “hot pursuit” of a felony suspect, the Court stated that Santana’s “act of retreating into her house” could “not defeat an arrest” that had “been set in motion in a public place.”  Id., at 42–43. Even assuming that Santana treated fleeing-felon cases categorically, that statement still does not establish a flat rule permitting warrantless home entry whenever a police officer pursues a fleeing misdemeanant.  Santana did not resolve the issue of misdemeanor pursuit; as the Court noted in a later case, “the law regarding warrantless entry in hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant is not clearly established” one way or the other.  Stanton v. Sims, 571 U.S. 3, 8, 10.

Misdemeanors run the gamut of seriousness, and they may be minor. States tend to apply the misdemeanor label to less violent and less dangerous crimes. The Court has held that when a minor offense (and no flight) is involved, police officers do not usually face the kind of emergency that can justify a warrantless home entry. See Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 742–743. Add a suspect’s flight and the calculus changes—but not enough to justify a categorical rule. In many cases, flight creates a need for police to act swiftly. But no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight creates such a need.

The Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents thus point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight. When the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—a need to act before it is possible to get a warrant—the police may act without waiting. Those circumstances include the flight itself. But pursuit of a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing a warrantless home entry. Pp. 3–12.

(b) The common law in place at the Constitution’s founding similarly does not support a categorical rule allowing warrantless home entry whenever a misdemeanant flees. Like the Court’s modern precedents, the common law afforded the home strong protection from government intrusion and it generally required a warrant before a government official could enter the home. There was an oft-discussed exception: An officer, according to the common-law treatises, could enter a house to pursue a felon. But in the misdemeanor context, officers had more limited authority to intrude on a fleeing suspect’s home. The commentators generally agreed that the authority turned on the circumstances; none suggested a rule authorizing warrantless entry in every misdemeanor-pursuit case. In short, the common law did not have—and does not support—a categorical rule allowing warrantless home entry when a suspected misdemeanant flees. Pp. 12–16.

Vacated and remanded.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Breyer, Sotomayor, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, JJ., joined, and in which Thomas, J., joined as to all but Part II–A. Kavanaugh, J., filed a concurring opinion. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Kavanaugh, J., joined as to Part II. Roberts, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Alito, J., joined.