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Supreme Court ruling addresses warrantless entry after pursuing someone for a misdemeanor

| Jul 2, 2021 | Criminal Law |

When police are in “hot pursuit” of a person they believe has committed a felony, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they can follow the person to their home and enter it without a warrant. 

However, what if the person being followed is suspected of a less serious misdemeanor?

A new ruling offers clarity on the limits police must observe

The Supreme Court ruled last month that, at least in the case before them, a police officer violated a California man’s rights. The case involved a man whom an officer reportedly spotted one night five years ago in Sonoma County playing loud music in his car and honking his horn. The officer started him, eventually turning on the cruiser’s lights to signal the man to stop. The man, just seconds from home, drove into his garage and attempted to close the door. The officer prevented the garage door from closing and entered the garage. 

The officer, who reportedly smelled alcohol, arrested him for DUI as well as the noise violation. The man has argued that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The justices’ majority opinion, while favoring the California man, did not say that warrantless entrance into a home for a suspected misdemeanor was never allowed. In the opinion, Justice Elena Kagan noted, “On many occasions, the officer will have good reason to enter — to prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home. But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so — even though the misdemeanant fled.” The justices sent the case back to the lower court.

Does the ruling change anything?

Does the ruling give needed guidance to police, or does it just make matters more confusing for everyone? An attorney for the National Fraternal Order of Police says it basically tells police “When the situation warrants immediate action, take it. When it doesn’t, get a warrant.”

It can certainly be difficult for a layperson to know if police have acted within the law and if the evidence against them has been obtained legally. That’s why it’s essential to know your rights and to seek legal guidance to protect those rights if you have been arrested and are facing criminal charges.