The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from “unreasonable” searches and seizures by the government.
That doesn’t always mean that police officers need a warrant before they can search you, but courts start with the base assumption that a warrant is usually necessary before police can enter your home, where you have the greatest expectation of privacy. That said, there are many exceptions to this general warrant requirement, even when it comes to searches of homes.
One of those exceptions has been “hot pursuit.” That is to say, when police have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime and are in hot pursuit of you, they don’t need to stop and get a warrant before following you into your residence.
But what if all they suspect is that you have committed a misdemeanor? Can the police seriously chase a misdemeanor suspect into their home? Or is the lack of severity of the crime important in determining whether a warrant is required?
The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that, in a misdemeanor case, hot pursuit is not enough to justify police entry into a home. In addition to the hot pursuit, the police must reasonably conclude there is a law enforcement emergency before they can enter without a warrant.
Misbehaving driver suspected of driving drunk
The case involved a police officer who noticed a driver honking his car horn and playing loud music. This unconventional behavior led the officer to suspect that the driver had been drinking.
The officer activated his police lights, but the driver was almost home when he did so. He had pulled into his garage and was closing the garage door.
The officer leapt from his vehicle in pursuit of the driver and used his foot to prevent the garage door from closing. He entered the house and demanded that the driver submit to field sobriety tests. The driver failed those tests and was ultimately convicted of drunk driving (a misdemeanor).
The state of California argued that hot pursuit is hot pursuit, regardless of the severity of the offense. It said that officers should always be able to enter homes when in hot pursuit of a suspect.
The defense warned that such a rule would empower police to enter homes even when pursuing people for completely non-dangerous offenses like curfew violations.
The high court ruled nearly unanimously that there must be additional exigent circumstances – a separate law enforcement emergency – before officers pursuing a misdemeanor suspect can enter their home.