Lange v. California

No. 20-18 - Argued February 24, 2021
At Issue

Does pursuit of a person who a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualify as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant?

  • Jeffrey Fisher, for the petitioner
  • Samuel Harbourt, for the respondent supporting vacatur
  • Amanda Rice, Court-appointed amicus curiae in support of the judgment below
  • Erica Ross, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting affirmance
Background and Case Commentary

This case arises out of a police officer’s decision to stick his foot under a garage door.  Pretty trivial, right? Arthur Lange’s case appears to be a fairly ordinary one, but underlying it are some difficult questions about warrantless entries into one’s home that the Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment cases have left unresolved.  A police officer followed Lange home after he failed to heed (or just didn’t notice; it’s not clear) the officer’s attempt to conduct a traffic stop.  Lange parked his car in his garage and started to close the door; the officer then blocked the door with his foot, and arrested Lange within his home.

The Fourth Amendment’s exigent circumstances doctrine excuses police from seeking a warrant when the circumstances are serious enough.  And the Court has permitted the warrantless entry of a home when the police engage in a “hot pursuit” of someone suspected of having just committed a felony.  But where should Lange’s case fall? Should the Court define a bright-line rule encompassing Lange’s misdemeanor facts, or should it apply the case-by-case exigent circumstances doctrine?

The Justices clearly struggled with trying to articulate a rule that was workable for the police, made sense in light of common law traditions, and accounted for two realities beyond their control: the sheer number of misdemeanor offenses under state law today, and the potential for danger when a person evades the police by entering their home.  For these reasons, the Chief Justice’s question here posed an opportunity to try and address some of these concerns.

Lange v. California on Oyez:

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Chief Justice Roberts to Petitioner (4:17): Well, isn’t it the--kind of the flip side of what you’ve been arguing in your brief, wouldn’t the--the more trivial offense suggest a higher danger? I mean, if somebody, you know, takes off and runs away when you say you’re going to, you know, arrest them for littering, it seems to me that that’s the situation where you’d be most concerned. I mean, he’s got something to hide.

Elizabeth Joh: No, Mr. Chief Justice, not necessarily. It’s true that we can imagine specific instances where a police officer with probable cause to believe someone committed a minor offense also has factually specific reasons to believe that other dangerous factors exist. But the Court should not presume that evading a misdemeanor arrest presumptively gives rise to the existence of danger justifying a warrantless entry of one’s home.

While it’s true that the Fourth Amendment often grants wide latitude to police officer discretion in the field, it’s also true that the Court has disfavored categorical rules unless clearly justified.

And such a categorical rule, in a world where there are a seemingly endless number of trivial misdemeanor offenses, is not clearly justified—rather, it would eviscerate the warrant requirement. Under California law, for example, trivial offenses include auctioning off a rabbit as a prize.* Here, the case-by-case nature of the exigent circumstances rule has proven both workable and has struck the right balance between law enforcement needs and Fourth Amendment rights.

*This is both a real law (Cal. Penal Code 599) and the subject of an amusing exchange between Justice Breyer and Samuel Harbourt later during oral argument.