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Supreme Court Takes on New Fourth Amendment Case

Written by: Phillip E. Friduss, Esq.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Lange v. California, Docket No. 20-18, where the issue has been coined in two different, but similar ways:

  1. Whether the pursuit of a person whom a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant; and,
  2. Whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that suspect?

Mr. Lange had had a bit to drink.  He was driving at night, honking his horn and blaring his music.  California Highway Patrolman Aaron Weikert followed Lange at a distance, closing in on him only once Lange turned onto a residential street.  Literally seconds before Lange pulled into his driveway, Weikert activated his overhead lights.  Lange, who had utilized his garage door opener, tooled his station wagon into the garage, and clicked on the right button to close the garage door.

Which might have succeeded but for Weikert’s foot, which somehow found itself  lodged on the driveway immediately underneath the garage door.  Up went the garage.  Discussion ensued.  Alcohol detected.  Arrest made for the noise, the booze, and for misdemeanor flight-related charges.

Suppression motion advanced.  Suppression motion denied.  While criminal case ongoing, Lange instituted civil action re his suspended license, and got a different result, the civil court finding his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.  Appeals.

California Court of Appeals held that Mr. Lange should have known he was being stopped when Officer Weikert activated his lights. The court therefore concluded that when Mr. Lange continued “approximately 100 feet” to his driveway, he created probable cause to arrest him for the two flight-related misdemeanors the State had invoked.

The Court also agreed with the State that because Officer Weikert had probable cause to arrest for those offenses, his brief “hot pursuit” justified his warrantless entry into Mr. Lange’s home. In so holding, the court specifically rejected Mr. Lange’s argument that “the exigent circumstance of ‘hot pursuit’ should be limited to ‘true emergency situations,’ not the investigation of minor offenses.”  The court presumed that hot pursuit would not justify a warrantless entry to arrest for a “nonjailable” violation.  But it rejected any further consideration of the severity of the offense or other surrounding circumstances. Instead, it applied a categorical rule: “Because the officer was in hot pursuit of a suspect whom he had probable cause to arrest for [a jailable misdemeanor], the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s driveway and garage were lawful.”

California Supreme Court chose not to hear the case.  Fun times ahead!