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Dr. Jarrod Sadulski

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

In June the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that limits the ability for law enforcement to enter a home without a warrant when in pursuit of someone for a minor crime.

The ruling in Lange v. California involved a person, Arthur Lange, whom police pursued into his garage when a California Highway Patrol officer observed him playing loud music in his car late at night on the street.

According to National Public Radio, the officer put on his flashing lights as Lange turned into his driveway. When the vehicle pulled into the garage, the officer, under the hot pursuit doctrine, placed his foot under the garage door so that the sensor would not close it. Lange was ultimately arrested for driving under the influence.

The Flight of a Suspected Misdemeanant Does Not Always Justify a Warrantless Entry

In writing the unanimous opinion, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said: “The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home.” She also stated that “We have no doubt that in a great many cases flight creates a need for police to act swiftly.

“A suspect may flee, for example, because he is intent on discarding evidence. Or his flight may show a willingness to flee yet again, while the police await a warrant. But no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight poses such dangers.”

Kagan also wrote that “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.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement cannot always pursue someone into their residence under the hot pursuit doctrine without a warrant when only a minor crime is suspected. However, the ruling did provide for some ambiguity, adding that each such instance should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis when the offense is suspected of being a misdemeanor.

For example, is there an articulable threat that evidence might be destroyed if someone who is suspected of a misdemeanor flees into a residence? Another question officers must consider is whether the person fleeing into a residence could pose a threat to someone inside.

Officers Entering a Residence under Hot Pursuit Is Inherently Dangerous

One example might be someone who is suspected of the misdemeanor crime of domestic battery runs into a residence where the victim is. Officers entering a residence under hot pursuit is inherently dangerous because there is a risk of weapons and other threats inside. In these situations, officers must consider all of the information available to determine whether pursuing someone into a residence is an appropriate action and should be evaluated according to the department’s policies and applicable state laws.

In my law enforcement career, there have been several instances when I needed to pursue suspects into a residence. It’s been my experience that the suspects had committed a forcible felony and entering the residence was easily justified.

In light of the new Supreme Court ruling, determining whether to pursue a suspect into a residence following a misdemeanor must be carefully evaluated based on the totality of the circumstances to ensure that the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated.