Supreme Court tightens, slightly, rules for police entering a home without a warrant

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Mel Evans AP

Police in Newtown, Pa., oversee a checkpoint.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday put limits on a law enforcement officer’s ability to follow a fleeing suspect into a home without a warrant if the person is believed to have committed a minor crime.

Generally, the U.S. Constitution requires a warrant to allow entry into a citizen’s home. But courts have said that does not apply if the person consents, or the officer faces “exigent circumstances” that require immediate action.

One of those emergencies, the Supreme Court has recognized, is when an officer is in “hot pursuit of a fleeing felon” seeking to evade the police.

But Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a collection of the court’s liberals and conservatives, said pursuing someone suspected of a misdemeanor is different.

“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,” Kagan wrote.

“But the need to pursue a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing home entry … 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.”

Liberal justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan’s opinion in full, as did conservatives Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Clarence Thomas joined most of it.

[Supreme Court considers giving police greater powers when pursuing suspects]

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the rule Kagan offered was of little guidance to police. The fact alone that a suspect is running to avoid arrest is all that is needed to allow police to pursue, Roberts wrote.

“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,” Roberts wrote.

“It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule: ‘Police officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect.’ ”

In the case at hand, only seconds elapsed between a California Highway Patrol officer turning on his blue lights to signal for Arthur Lange to pull over and Lange instead making the turn into his driveway and then his garage.

Lange was not suspected of a felony — he drew Officer Aaron Weikert’s attention for playing his radio too loud on a warm California day, and occasionally beeping his horn. It was only after Weikert confronted Lange in his Sonoma garage that he had reason to suspect the driver had been drinking.

A test showed Lange had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, court documents say. He lost his license and pleaded no contest to driving under the influence.

But he also contended that what Weikert learned in the garage should not have been allowed into evidence.

A California court sided with the police, saying there was no difference in pursuing someone suspected of a felony and someone suspected of a misdemeanor.

Kavanaugh said in a concurring opinion that Kagan and Roberts were not really far apart.

The difference in approach “will be academic in most cases,” Kavanaugh wrote. “That is because cases of fleeing misdemeanants will almost always also involve a recognized exigent circumstance — such as a risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others — that will still justify warrantless entry into a home.”

Roberts and Alito agreed Lange’s case should be sent back to the lower court to consider whether pulling into the garage counted as “fleeing.” Lange could try to convince the court that his is the unusual case in which the general rule that hot pursuit justifies warrantless entry does not apply, Roberts wrote.

“While the flight need not be reminiscent of the opening scene of a James Bond film,” the chief justice wrote, “there must be ‘some sort of chase.’ ”

The case is Lange v. California.

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