Hot Pursuit and Federal Misdemeanors (Part 1)

by | Dec 21, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On June 23, 2021, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Lange v. California. The principal issue concerned whether the federal Fourth Amendment categorically permits a warrantless entry into a home in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect.

Justice Kagan wrote for the majority of the Court in relevant part: This case arises from a police officer’s warrantless entry into petitioner Arthur Lange’s garage. Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music and honking his horn. The officer began to follow Lange and soon after turned on his overhead lights to signal that Lange should pull over. Rather than stopping, Lange drove a short distance to his driveway and entered his attached garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage. He questioned Lange and, after observing signs of intoxication, put him through field sobriety tests. A later blood test showed that Lange’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

The State charged Lange with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The Superior Court denied Lange’s motion, and its appellate division affirmed. The California Court of Appeal also affirmed. It concluded that Lange’s failure to pull over when the officer flashed his lights created probable cause to arrest Lange for the misdemeanor of failing to comply with a police signal. And it stated that Lange could not defeat an arrest begun in a public place by retreating into his home. The pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant, the court held, is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The California Supreme Court denied review.

Most everyone is familiar with the term “felon” for someone who commits a felony. This opinion introduces us to the much rarer term for someone who commits a misdemeanor: a misdemeanant. New Jersey’s criminal code classifies misdemeanors, i.e., non-felony criminal offenses, as “disorderly persons offenses.”