Supreme Court justices questioned whether the distinction between felonies and misdemeanors should matter for officers pursuing suspects into homes without warrants.
The court was presented with different answers from four lawyers Wednesday morning during nearly two hours of argument, much of which was inscrutable to listeners struggling to hear C-SPAN’s live feed.
Audible portions of the argument showed justices trying to balance the need to protect the sanctity of the home, on the one hand, and law enforcement interests on the other.
It can be dangerous for cops to just knock on the door of a suspect’s home, Chief Justice John Roberts told Jeffrey Fisher of Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
Fisher argued on behalf of defendant Arthur Lange, against a categorical rule allowing warrantless entry for “hot pursuit” of misdemeanor suspects. Police need “actual exigent circumstances” on a case-by-case basis, Fisher said.
Roberts also questioned one of Fisher’s adversaries whether police really need the right to chase an 18-year-old drinking beer with his friends into his parents’ house.
Several justices, including Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, noted difficulties with drawing the line between felonies and misdemeanors. Different states define felony and misdemeanor conduct differently, Breyer observed.
Lange was charged with driving under the influence in Sonoma, Calif. He moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that the officer who followed him on the road couldn’t automatically follow him into his garage. Lange pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and that conviction was upheld on appeal.
Notably, state officials agreed with Lange that a categorical rule shouldn’t apply for misdemeanors. That led the justices to appoint an amicus, Jones Day’s Amanda Rice, to argue in support of the state court ruling.
The Fourth Amendment generally requires warrants, with some exceptions.
The Supreme Court “has never suggested that the hot pursuit exception turns on the classification of the underlying offense,” Rice said at the argument. “It should now expressly hold that it does not.”
The exception “protects important law enforcement interests that categorically outweigh privacy interests when a suspect decides to flee,” she said.
And though the state agrees with Lange on the bottom line, it still presented argument, via deputy state solicitor general Samuel T. Harbourt.
“The government has a weightier interest in immediately pursuing and apprehending felony suspects, and a case-specific approach for misdemeanors would be more consistent with precedent and with the privacy interests underlying the Fourth Amendment,” Harbourt said.
On behalf of the U.S. Justice Department, Erica Ross, assistant to the solicitor general, argued against Lange as well. Ross told the justices they “should recognize at least a general presumptive rule that when a misdemeanor suspect tries to thwart a lawful public encounter by moving the encounter to a residence, an officer’s decision to follow him is reasonable.”
A decision is expected by summer.
The case is Lange v. California, U.S., No. 20-18, oral argument 2/24/21.