Generally, the Constitution requires one. But courts have said that doesn’t 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 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. Lange appealed, saying what Weikert learned in the garage should not have been allowed into evidence. But 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.
Stanford University law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher, representing Lange, said extending the hot-pursuit exception to include misdemeanors would vastly increase the power of police to intrude on someone’s home and property, which the Constitution holds “sacrosanct.”
When Justice Stephen G. Breyer lamented how difficult it can be, because of different state laws, to easily classify behavior as a felony or misdemeanor, Fisher agreed. He said it was unnecessary for the court to come up with a bright-line rule.
Instead, he said, such decisions must come case by case. Officers deserve “substantial discretion to analyze the situation, as the court has always said, but do require a showing of actual exigent circumstances,” Fisher said.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said a video of the encounter made him doubt Lange even knew he was being pursued. Weikert had turned on his lights about 100 feet from Lange’s driveway.
“If we hold that ‘hot pursuit’ requires a hot pursuit, won’t we go a long way toward preventing warrantless arrests for minor infractions?” Alito asked.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., though, worried about hamstringing the police. It can be dangerous for an officer when a suspect retreats to his home, where he could arm himself or destroy evidence. Perhaps police should be even more worried if someone flees when police confront him over a minor infraction, Roberts said.
“It seems to me that that’s the situation where you’d be most concerned,” the chief justice explained. “I mean, he’s got something to hide.”
But when the other side was up, Roberts hypothesized about a group of teenagers drinking beer who scattered and ran to their parents’ homes when an officer showed up.
That could not “be something that would warrant the officer, you know, breaking into the house,” Roberts said.
Complicating the case is that the state of California thinks the state court’s decision in favor of the police went too far, and declined to defend it.
California Deputy Solicitor General Samuel T. Harbourt said the state believes that the hot- pursuit leeway should be applied on a case-by-case basis when suspected misdemeanors are involved. But he was swamped with questions about how an officer might make such differentiations.
Former Supreme Court clerk and Detroit lawyer Amanda K. Rice was appointed by the justices to defend the California court’s decision. She said proceeding without a warrant should depend not on the severity of the alleged crime but on the suspect’s actions.
“The hot-pursuit exception justifies warrantless home entry in a narrow class of cases where a suspect tries to thwart a lawful public arrest by outracing an officer to a dwelling,” Rice said. The court should not impose a line “as wobbly as the one between felonies and misdemeanor,” she said.
Rice was supported by Justice Department lawyer Erica L. Ross, who didn’t go quite so far. She asked the court to recognize a general presumption that when a misdemeanor suspect tries to thwart an encounter with law enforcement by fleeing to a residence, “an officer’s decision to follow him is reasonable.”
The case is Lange v. California.