‘Hot Pursuit’ Doesn’t Always Justify Entry, Supreme Court Rules

Because neither side supported the appeals court’s ruling in the case, Lange v. California, No. 20-18, the justices appointed Amanda K. Rice, a former law clerk to Justice Kagan, to argue that misdemeanors always justify warrantless entries.

Justice Kagan rejected that categorical position.

“The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home,” she wrote. “An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency. On many occasions, the officer will have good reason to enter — to prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence or escape from the home. But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so — even though the misdemeanant fled.”

The court sent the case back to the lower courts for a fresh look in light of Wednesday’s ruling.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. issued a heated concurring opinion questioning the majority’s approach and asserting that flight was enough to justify entering homes without a warrant.

“Hot pursuit is not merely a setting in which other exigent circumstances justifying warrantless entry might emerge,” he wrote. “It is itself an exigent circumstance. And we have never held that whether an officer may enter a home to complete an arrest turns on what the fleeing individual was suspected of doing before he took off, let alone whether that offense would later be charged as a misdemeanor or felony.”

Though he differed with the majority, the chief justice also would have sent the case back for further proceedings, but to examine a different question. He said it was not clear that Mr. Lange had been fleeing at all.

When the case was argued in February, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who joined the chief justice’s concurrence, expressed qualms on that same point after reviewing video taken by Officer Weikert’s dashboard camera.

“The video shows there was no chase and Mr. Lange really didn’t flee,” Justice Alito said, adding, “Hot pursuit has to be hot and it has to be a pursuit.”

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