Jersey City, New Jersey – On February 24, 2021, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Lange v. California to determine whether the pursuit of a person whom a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter the home without a warrant.
In Lange, a police officer followed Lange home while Lange was driving his car. The officer did not try to stop Lange using lights and sirens on the street, but waited until Lange was in his driveway to turn on his lights. Lange did not stop; rather he drove into the garage and closed the garage door. The officer stuck his foot under the door causing the sensor to open the door. While in the garage, the officer smelled alcohol on Lange’s breath, which ultimately led to charges for DWI. Lange filed a motion to suppress evidence based on an illegal search of his home because the officer did not have a warrant to enter the house. The trial court denied the motion and Lange pled guilty to the DWI, which was followed by appeals through the California court system and then the United States Supreme Court.
Prior Supreme Court decisions have twice upheld similar warrantless entries into homes where the police had probable cause of the commission of felonies. However, suspicion of misdemeanors typically has not justified such warrantless entries into homes because the sanctity of the home is one of the most protected interests in search and seizure law. Prior Supreme Court caselaw has said that a traffic violation carrying no potential jail time should rarely be sanctioned for such warrantless entries. A misdemeanor, which carries potential jail time, but much less than a felony, is in between such a traffic violation and a misdemeanor.
The importance of the issue, if not self-evident, is illustrated by the submission of 18 briefs by Amicus Curiae, including state governments and organizations arguing on behalf of both sides.
As with all United States Supreme Court decisions, the decision will establish the minimum protection that states must provide, but states may add more protection. Thus, if the Court decides such searches are categorically lawful or must be decided on case-by-case basis, a state like New Jersey could add more protection by concluding such searches are always unlawful. But if the Court decides such searches are categorically unlawful, that will apply to all states and no state may reduce the protections.
Oral argument will be held on February 24, 2021 and a decision will be issued sometime before the end of the Court’s year at the end of June 2021.