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Hot Pursuit May Still Require Warrant, High Court Rules

The government had argued that police in any kind of a chase don't need a warrant to enter a house, regardless of whether the crime at issue is a felony or a misdemeanor.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Raising the bar for the exception to warrant requirements under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that police should get less leeway when investigating misdemeanor crimes versus felonies in progress.

“The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.  “An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency.”

She added, “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.”

The case stems from Arthur Lange's bid to throw out the field sobriety test given to him after he was followed home by California Highway Patrol Officer Aaron Weikart who had noticed Lange was honking his car horn while loudly playing music. Within four seconds of Weikart activating the lights on his patrol car, however, Lange had already pulled into his garage. Weikart nevertheless leaped out of his car and used his foot to keep the garage door from closing. 

Lange was charged with driving under the influence as well as a traffic infraction for the loud music. He fought for a Supreme Court reversal after lower courts ruled that the search that Weikart initiated in his own garage met an exception to warrant requirements under the Fourth Amendment.

Kagan wrote that the Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to expand the scope of exceptions to allow warrantless entry into someone’s home. 

“So we are not eager—more the reverse—to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant,” Kagan wrote. 

The nation's highest court was mostly unanimous Wednesday in siding with Lange.

"A great many misdemeanor pursuits involve exigencies allowing warrantless entry," Kagan wrote in the lead opinion. "But whether a given one does so turns on the particular facts of the case."

During oral arguments in February, Lange's lawyer Jeffrey L. Fisher told justices that a ruling against them would allow police officers to pursue teenagers breaking curfew in the same way they pursue an armed robber. 

But instead of allowing pursuit in all misdemeanor cases, the justices ruled that police cannot enter someone’s home when pursuing them for a minor crime, except in exigent circumstances — which occur often.

Most of the court joined Kagan’s opinion in full, but Justice Clarence Thomas took exception to one section, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining in part with a concurring opinion. Justice Samuel Alito joined an opinion concurring in the judgment by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Chief Justice John Roberts criticized Kagan’s reasoning, saying that “hot pursuit” is an exigent circumstance in and of itself. 

“It is the flight, not the underlying offense, that has always been understood to justify the general rule,” Roberts wrote in his concurring opinion. 

But Kavanaugh wrote the difference between Kagan and Roberts’ approaches was mostly academic. 

“That is because cases of fleeing misdemeanants will almost always also involve a recognized exigent circumstance,” Kavanaugh wrote. “As Lange’s able counsel forthrightly acknowledged at oral argument, the approach adopted by the court today will still allow the police to make a warrantless entry into a home ‘nine times out of 10 or more’ in cases involving pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant.”

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