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Supreme Court balks at automatic warrantless searches when police are in ‘hot pursuit’ for lesser crimes

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2020. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/TNS)
June 24, 2021

The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to give police the automatic power to enter homes without a warrant when they’re in “hot pursuit” for a misdemeanor crime, ruling against an officer who charged a man with DUI after slipping under his garage door.

The case involved a California man who a police officer attempted to pull over 100 feet from his driveway. Instead of stopping his car, the man drove into his garage and shut the door — later claiming he didn’t see the patrol car behind him. The officer entered the man’s garage, questioned him and ultimately charged him with DUI.

The court’s ruling was unanimous but several justices wrote concurring opinions to offer their separate legal reasoning.

“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,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. “But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so — even though the misdemeanant fled.”

In situations when an officer doesn’t have time to get a warrant, police — and courts — must review the circumstances on a case-by-case basis rather than assuming that a warrantless search is permitted, the court held.

“Those circumstances include the flight itself,” Kagan wrote. “But pursuit of a misdemeanant does not trigger a categorical rule allowing a warrantless home entry.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a concurring opinion joined by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, agreed with sending the case back to lower courts to reassess the specific circumstances in the case. But he disagreed with the conclusion that a police officer chasing a suspect needed to evaluate constitutional principles in real time.

Roberts started his opinion with a hypothetical scene of a police officer giving chase as a suspect leaps over a fence and stands in a private front yard. The court’s opinion, Roberts wrote, would require an officer to stop and consider whether the suspect would ultimately be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor before following over the fence.

“The Constitution does not demand this absurd and dangerous result. We should not impose it,” Roberts wrote. “We have never held that whether an officer may enter a home to complete an arrest turns on what the fleeing individual was suspected of doing before he took off.”

Police are generally required to have a warrant to enter someone’s home under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable searches.” Courts have allowed exceptions when an officer is in “hot pursuit” of a suspect believed to have committed a felony. In the case at hand, police could point only to his failure to stop, a misdemeanor.

Though the difference may seem academic, civil liberty groups were concerned the case could vastly expand police powers because of the breadth of misdemeanor charges. But groups that advocate against drunk driving were concerned a ruling the other way could allow intoxicated drivers to escape punishment by simply pulling into a private space and sobering up while police waited outside to obtain a warrant.

Five state supreme courts had held a misdemeanor pursuit justifies a warrantless home entry and three state courts and two federal appeals courts said the issue must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The case came to the court during a period of heightened scrutiny of police following high-profile cases of misconduct.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in April in the death of George Floyd and is set to be sentenced Friday.

Fourth Amendment questions have long divided the Supreme Court in unexpected ways. Liberal Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, for instance, has joined conservatives in past such disputes. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes sided with liberals.

Last fall, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch called a ruling in Vermont allowing game wardens to peer inside a garage without a warrant an “error.” Gorsuch, a conservative, was joined by liberal Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan.

The case came to the Supreme Court after the California Supreme Court declined to hear it, allowing a lower court’s ruling that sided with police to stand.


(c) 2021 USA Today

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