On February 24, 2021 the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in Lange v. California. The case arises out of the California State Court, First Appellate Division and examines the Fourth Amendment and the so-called “hot pursuit” doctrine. The hot pursuit doctrine provides that police may pursue a fleeing suspect into a home—without a warrant—when they have probable cause to make an arrest and when they set that arrest in motion in a public place. United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976).

Question Certified for Review   

Does pursuit of a person who a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualify as an exigent circumstance, sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant?

Facts of the Case

Lange v. California stems from a California State Highway Patrolman’s attempt to effectuate a traffic stop. Around 10:20 PM, the officer heard loud music coming from an orange vehicle; he also heard the vehicle honk four to five times for no apparent reason. The loud music and the honking at no particular target constituted violations of California law. The officer then followed the vehicle as it drove northbound. The vehicle turned right, and the officer followed to effectuate a traffic stop. The officer briefly lost sight of the vehicle as it turned right, but eventually regained sight. The vehicle turned left, and the officer again followed. The officer accelerated to close the gap between the vehicles. The vehicle slowed to a stop in the middle of the road. After 2 to 4 seconds the vehicle proceeded forward, at which point the officer activated the patrol’s overhead lights.

The officer testified that the vehicle failed to yield, and so he followed it into a driveway. The vehicle went into an attached garage. As the garage door started to close, the officer exited his vehicle and stuck his foot in front of the sensor to send the garage door back up. Mr. Lange was still in his vehicle with the driver’s side door open when the officer entered the garage.

While inside the garage, the officer asked Mr. Lange if he had noticed the officer. Mr. Lange replied that he did not. The officer asked Mr. Lange for his license and registration. He also asked Mr. Lange why he was playing his music so loudly and how much he had had to drink. Eventually, the officer and Mr. Lange moved outside the garage, where the officer arrested Mr. Lange for driving under the influence. He was ultimately charged with misdemeanor violations of driving under the influence of alcohol and operating a vehicle’s sound system at excessive levels. Lange’s blood-alcohol level was later determined to be 0.245%, more than three times the legal limit.

Lower Court Decisions

Mr. Lange filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officer’s warrantless entry into his home violated the Fourth Amendment. The court found that “because the officer was in hot pursuit of a suspect whom he had probable cause to arrest for a violation of [state law], the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s driveway and garage were lawful.” In other words, the court ruled in favor of the State of California and law enforcement, holding the officer’s entry into Mr. Lange’s garage without a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the officer was in “hot pursuit” of Mr. Lange, whom he had probable cause to arrest for a misdemeanor. The court denied Mr. Lange’s motion to suppress and he was ultimately convicted. The court of appeals affirmed Mr. Lange’s conviction.

Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court

On behalf of the Petitioner, Mr. Lange, Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher asked for a reversal of the California state court ruling. He argued it is not too much to ask for police officers to procure a warrant before “breaching the Fourth Amendment’s most sacrosanct space” absent an emergency situation, and especially where the underlying reason for the stop is a misdemeanor offense. Thus, Lange asks the Court to reject the “categorical” rule under the hot pursuit doctrine proposed by amicus.

The State of California, represented by the state’s deputy solicitor general, Samuel Harbourt, did not defend the state court decision. Instead, it agreed with Lange that the Court should reject a categorical rule in favor of requiring officer’s to demonstrate a case-specific basis to enter the home without a warrant.

The Court appointed Amanda Rice, a Detroit lawyer, to argue on behalf of amicus curiae, and in support of the judgment below. Ms. Rice advocated for the “exceedingly narrow” scope of the categorical rule under the hot pursuit doctrine. She argued it appropriately balances law enforcement and privacy interests, provides necessary guidance to officer, and avoids unnecessary constitutional litigation.

The justices were concerned with how to formulate a workable rule in the context of the hot pursuit doctrine for law enforcement. Multiple justices inquired about the line between felonies and misdemeanors. Justice Breyer, for example, pointed out the different definitions for misdemeanors in Massachusetts and California. The justices also seemed to recognize the precarious situation officers are put in when a suspect flees. Justice Sotomayor, for example, asked if the nature of a hot pursuit itself creates “a sense of urgency” wherein a warrantless entry might be appropriate?

A complete copy of the transcript can be found here.

National Fraternal Order of Police as Amicus Curiae

The case has garnered significant attention from the media, academics, and legal scholars. Nineteen amicus briefs have been filed, with briefs from various states, the Department of Justice, the ACLU, and the National FOP. In its brief, the National FOP advocated that there is no Fourth Amendment violation when: (1) a law enforcement officer demonstrates an intent to conduct a brief investigatory stop or to set in motion an arrest in a public place; (2) the suspect ignores or disobeys the officer’s lawful order to “STOP” or “PULL OVER”; and (3) the officer, while in hot pursuit of that suspect, enters the suspect’s home without a warrant.

Under the hot pursuit doctrine, the rule advocated for by the National FOP—which mirrors the initial ruling from the California state court—protects the interests of both the public and law enforcement officers by encouraging safer roadways and discouraging flight for minor offenses. Moreover, this rule would account for the training, experience, and internal department pursuit policies that guide every law enforcement officer’s decision to pursue a fleeing suspect, along with the different risk factors that will vary with each case. As a result, the sought-after ruling will not lead to aggressive policing practices, because law enforcement is well-prepared to ensure that pursuit of a fleeing suspect (and subsequent warrantless entry) is ultimately a rare—but objectively justified—scenario.

Crabbe, Brown & James’ Managing Partner, Larry H. James, has been General Counsel to the National FOP since 2001. The National FOP offer their service as amicus curiae when important police and public safety interests are at stake, as in this case. A complete copy of the National FOP’s brief can be found here.

After the oral argument, Mr. James appeared for a teleforum with the Federalist Society to discuss the case and its implications for law enforcement. The teleforum featured Mr. James, Clark Neily, Vice President for Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, and Vikrant Reddy, Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.