U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument Regarding the Scope of the “Hot Pursuit” Exception to the Warrant Requirement


By: Curt Graham

Courts have long held that a warrantless entry by police into a residence to effectuate an arrest is presumptively unlawful in the absence of exigent circumstances. One such “exigent circumstance” arises when officers are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect. However, the Supreme Court has yet to determine whether a pursuit relating to a misdemeanor offense justifies entry into a home without a warrant. Last week, the Supreme Court examined this question when it heard arguments in Lange v. California.

In Lange, the arresting officer testified that he heard Mr. Lange playing loud music and honking his horn unnecessarily while driving. Believing there had been a violation of California’s Vehicle Code, the officer began following Mr. Lange. According to the officer, Mr. Lange turned into his driveway and pulled into the garage despite activation of the officer’s overhead lights. The garage door began to close, and the officer approached the garage and stuck his foot in front of the sensor, causing the garage door to go back up. The officer then went into the garage to speak to Mr. Lange, who was ultimately arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. The trial court issued a conviction, and an appellate court affirmed the conviction. Mr. Lange now brings his Fourth Amendment challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the hot pursuit exception should be limited to “true emergency situations,” not the investigation of minor offenses such as noise violations.

The question presented to the Court is whether the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies when officers are pursuing a suspect they believe committed a misdemeanor. Those in support of the conviction’s validity contend that “the act of retreating into a house cannot thwart an otherwise proper arrest that has been set in motion in a public place,” regardless of whether the crime is classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. Additionally, officers in the midst of a pursuit will frequently be unaware of key facts that will ultimately determine the crime’s classification. Others have expressed concern about the effects of a blanket rule that would allow officers to enter a home to make an arrest for minor offenses.

The Court’s decision in Lange will have a significant impact on the scope of the hot pursuit exception to the warrant requirement, and we will be keeping a close eye on this important Fourth Amendment case.

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