Jersey City, New Jersey – On October 19, 2020, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Lange v. California, to determine whether it is permissible for a police officer to pursue a suspect of a misdemeanor offense into that person’s home without a warrant.
The general rule is that a police officer may only enter a person’s home when in possession of a search warrant. There are several exceptions to that rule, including the hot pursuit exception. The hot pursuit exception allows an officer who is pursuing a suspect to follow the suspect into a home. Prior Supreme Court caselaw has permitted such warrantless entry in felony cases, but no case has addressed this exception in a misdemeanor case. A felony is a crime punishable by one year or more in prison. A misdemeanor is an offense punishable by less than one year in prison. In New Jersey, the terms felony and misdemeanor are not used. Rather, an Indictable Crime is one punishable by 18 months in prison or more and a Disorderly Persons offense is one punishable by up to 180 days in jail.
In Lange, a police officer suspected Mr. Lange of driving under the influence and followed him home without activating his lights and sirens until Mr. Lange opened his garage door. Mr. Lange pulled into the garage and the officer stuck his foot under the garage door sensor to prevent it from closing. The officer entered the garage. Mr. Lange moved to suppress the search and seizure as an unlawful warrantless entry into his home. The motion was denied and Mr. Lange ultimately pled no contest to driving under the influence.
Hot pursuit cases are not an everyday occurrence, but they happen often enough that the Court’s decision in this case will affect many people throughout the United States, including in New Jersey. If police are permitted to enter a home in hot pursuit for non-felony investigations, that could include many common scenarios such as simple assaults, minor drug possession, and petty theft. In New Jersey, DWI is not a criminal charge; it is a motor vehicle violation, so it is possible the Court’s decision could approve of the search in Lange but for reasons that would prevent such searches in New Jersey. On the other hand, in New Jersey, fleeing the police after being signaled to pull over or stop could be an indictable crime, so a similar fact pattern in New Jersey may be permitted even if the Court suppresses the search in Lange.
The Court’s decision and rationale will need to be evaluated once the decision is made, which should occur sometime before the end of June 2021.