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In U.S. Supreme Court Brief, Attorney General Becerra Stands Up for Constitutional Protections Against Warrantless Entry into the Home

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today filed a brief in Lange v. California urging the U.S. Supreme Court to carefully safeguard protections limiting circumstances in which police officers can enter a home without a warrant. The Supreme Court has long authorized warrantless entries whenever police are in “hot pursuit” of a suspected felon. However, in today’s brief, the Attorney General argues that the Court should not extend that categorical rule to misdemeanor cases, and should instead require police to either obtain a warrant or identify a case-specific emergency justifying an immediate entry. 

“Our Constitution enshrines fundamental protections against unreasonable searches and seizures,” said Attorney General Becerra. “And, among those safeguards, the sanctity of the home receives heightened recognition. While there may be misdemeanor cases where it is imperative for police to pursue a fleeing suspect into a home, officers should be prepared to identify a particular emergency that requires them to do so without waiting for a warrant. In California, we’re committed to doing everything we can to protect the privacy rights of all of our families.”

More than forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a categorical Fourth Amendment rule authorizing warrantless entries in all cases where police pursue suspected felons into a home. But the Supreme Court has never extended that rule to the misdemeanor context, and lower courts across the country are closely divided over whether such an extension would be appropriate. In today’s brief, the Attorney General describes the basis for the felony “hot-pursuit” exception and argues that it should not be extended to the misdemeanor context. The brief further notes that such an extension would be contrary to the historical evidence regarding the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment. It also explains that adopting a nationwide hot-pursuit exception in all misdemeanor cases could materially increase intrusions on legitimate privacy interests, and that the law-enforcement interests advanced by the felony exception are far less likely to be served by a misdemeanor exception.

The case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court arose from a DUI prosecution in Sonoma County. After a California Highway Patrol officer attempted to pull over the defendant for traffic infractions, the defendant drove into the garage of his home. As the garage door began to close, the officer walked into the garage, where he observed signs that the defendant was intoxicated. A blood test later revealed that the defendant’s blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit. The state courts upheld the conviction, ruling that the officer’s warrantless entry into the garage was lawful based on longstanding state appellate precedent applying the “hot-pursuit” exception in misdemeanor cases. In the brief, the Attorney General agrees that the conviction should stand, but argues that the “hot pursuit” exception should not be categorically applied to misdemeanors and that the case should be remanded to the lower court for further consideration. Driving while intoxicated is a serious criminal act, as is disobeying an officer’s lawful command to stop. However, absent a case-specific emergency justifying an immediate warrantless entry, an officer must still obtain a warrant to enter someone’s home in the misdemeanor context.

A copy of the brief filed today in Lange v. California is available here. The case will be argued next year and a decision is expected by June.

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