U.S. Supreme Court

3 newest justices join Supreme Court liberals in decision for fleeing misdemeanor suspect

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police officers who are pursuing a misdemeanor suspect aren’t necessarily entitled to enter a home without a warrant.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion in the Fourth Amendment case.

“A great many misdemeanor pursuits involve exigencies allowing warrantless entry,” she wrote. “But whether a given one does so turns on the particular facts of the case.”

Kagan’s opinion was joined in full by the court’s two other liberal justices, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer, and the three appointees of former President Donald Trump: Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

The majority opinion doesn’t disturb the long-settled rule that police can enter the home of a fleeing felon, as opposed to a fleeing misdemeanor suspect, Kavanaugh pointed out in a concurrence.

Kavanaugh also joined part of an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas arguing that the exclusionary rule shouldn’t apply in “hot pursuit” cases.

The petitioner in the case is Arthur Lange, a California man who sought to suppress evidence of intoxication collected after an officer entered his attached garage.

The officer first noticed Lange because he was playing loud music and honking his horn while driving a station wagon. The state had contended that the officer could enter Lange’s garage without a warrant because Lange failed to stop when the officer activated his overhead lights. Failing to stop is a misdemeanor offense. Lange instead continued to his driveway about a hundred feet away and entered the garage.

The officer conducted field sobriety tests after following Lange into his garage. A later blood test showed an alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. Lange was charged with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of alcohol and a low-level noise infraction.

A California appeals court applied a categorical rule, finding that police are always entitled to enter a home without a warrant when in hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect.

The Supreme Court overturned the appeals court ruling and remanded the case.

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

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concurred in the judgment in an opinion joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Roberts argued that hot pursuit of a suspect is itself an exigent circumstance justifying warrantless entry into a fleeing suspect’s home.

But courts should ascertain whether a flight qualifies as a hot pursuit, and the California appeals court failed to do so, Roberts said.

Thomas partly concurred in Kagan’s opinion and concurred in the judgment.

Thomas agreed with the majority that police aren’t always entitled to enter the home of a fleeing suspect for all kinds of crimes. He said, however, that the majority’s case-by-case rule “is subject to historical, categorical exceptions.”

Thomas also offered reasons why the exclusionary rule shouldn’t apply to evidence discovered by police while pursuing a fleeing suspect. Kavanaugh joined that portion of Thomas’ opinion.

“Here, exclusion is inappropriate because it would encourage suspects to flee,” Thomas wrote. “Second, our precedents similarly make clear that criminal defendants cannot use the exclusionary rule as ‘a shield against’ their own bad conduct. … All the evidence that petitioner seeks to exclude is evidence that inevitably would have been discovered had he complied with the officer’s order to stop.”

The case is Lange v. California.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog, which had early coverage of the case.

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