“The 2016 police encounter involving retired California real estate agent Arthur G. Lange seemed routine, more likely to be on the TV show Cops than one destined for a major Fourth Amendment confrontation in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case involves a police officer who entered Lange’s garage without a warrant and questioned Lange after pursuing his vehicle because he heard erratic horn-blowing and loud music coming from the car.
The question in Lange v. California, scheduled for argument Wednesday, is whether police officers who pursue someone suspected of a misdemeanor into a home may conduct a warrantless search or seizure. It is well-established that police in “hot pursuit” of a suspected felon in public may follow that suspect into a residence.
The new case addresses whether pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect qualifies categorically as an exigent circumstance allowing an officer to enter a home without a warrant.
The case has implications not just for drivers such as Lange but for any number of situations when potential misdemeanor offenders might enter or retreat into the home at the sight of the police.
“Misdemeanors represent such an enormous aspect of our criminal justice system,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law School professor who has written widely on the topic. “Permitting law enforcement to breach the home on the basis of a misdemeanor would be a vast expansion of police power.”
The local prosecutor who handled Lange’s case argues that requiring a warrant for a search after the hot pursuit of even a misdemeanor suspect would often allow the destruction of evidence or escape of the suspect and put police at risk.
“I don’t want police bursting into homes on a daily basis either,” says Sonoma County, California, Deputy District Attorney Robert A. Maddock. “There is a necessity for a clear rule for officers to follow.”