Supreme Court will decide whether officer can enter garage after pursuit of misdemeanor suspect

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether an officer can enter a garage without a warrant when in pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect.

The high court granted cert in the case of Arthur Lange, a California man who sought to suppress evidence of alcohol on his breath that led an officer to charge him with driving under the influence. The officer noticed the smell while in Lange’s garage after following him home. The officer first noticed Lange because he was playing loud music and occasionally honking his horn while driving his station wagon.

The state contended that the officer could enter Lange’s garage without a warrant because Lange failed to stop when the officer activated his overhead lights, which is a misdemeanor offense.

The case involves the Fourth Amendment, which requires police to obtain a warrant before entering a home, except in “exigent circumstances,” according to the cert petition. That kind of exigency may exist when a police officer is in “hot pursuit” of a suspect, but it’s unclear when the exception applies.

The Supreme Court has twice upheld warrantless entries by officers pursuing an armed robber and a drug dealer—both felons. But in a case involving a traffic violation that carried no possibility of jail time, the Supreme Court said a warrantless entry for such a minor offense “should rarely be sanctioned.”

The ambiguity has created a circuit split. Some courts hold that the pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect always qualifies as an exigent circumstance. Others decide on a fact-specific, case-by-case basis.

The officer who followed Lange home did not activate his siren or immediately turn on his overheard lights. When Lange opened his garage door, the officer turned on his overhead lights. Instead of pulling over, Lange drove into his garage, and the officer followed him on foot. As the garage door was going down, the officer stuck his foot under the sensor to open it back up.

In the garage, the office noticed the smell of alcohol on Lange’s breath. Lange was charged with driving under the influence and operating a vehicle sound system at excessive levels. Lange pleaded no contest to the DUI in Sonoma County, California, after his suppression motion was denied.

The case is Lange v. California.

Publications with coverage of the cert grant include SCOTUSblog, Courthouse News Service and Bloomberg Law.



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