« Notable education efforts prior to sentencing of minor participant in Capitol riot (who seems likely to get probation) | Main | "The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations - An Expansion on the Preliminary Assessment" »

June 23, 2021

SCOTUS completes OT20 criminal docket with "it depends" Fourth Amendment ruling on misdemeanors and exigent circumstances

Astute law students often learn pretty quickly that "it depends" is often a pretty good answer to hard legal questions.  Consequently, I am not too surprised that the Supreme Court this morning, in deciding the last significant criminal case on its docket this Term, embraced its usual "it depends" approach — more formally a "case-by-case" analysis — to what can constitute exigent circumstances when police pursue a person suspect of a misdemeanor.  The Court's opinion in Lange v. California, No. 20–18 (S. Ct. June 23, 2021) (available here), starts this way:

The Fourth Amendment ordinarily requires that police officers get a warrant before entering a home without permission. But an officer may make a warrantless entry when “the exigencies of the situation” create a compelling law enforcement need.  Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 460 (2011).  The question presented here is whether the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect always — or more legally put, categorically — qualifies as an exigent circumstance.  We hold it does not.  A great many misdemeanor pursuits involve exigencies allowing warrantless entry.  But whether a given one does so turns on the particular facts of the case.

I will leave it to Fourth Amendment experts to parse this opinion, but I thought it notable (and useful to highlight) how the Court's majority opinion by Justice Kagan stresses the wide variety of crimes we label misdemeanors:

Key to resolving [this case] are two facts about misdemeanors: They vary widely, but they may be (in a word) “minor.” Welsh, 466 U.S., at 750.  In California and elsewhere, misdemeanors run the gamut of seriousness.  As the amicus notes, some involve violence.  California, for example, classifies as misdemeanors various forms of assault. See Cal. Penal Code Ann. §241 (West Cum. Supp. 2021); Brief for Amicus Curiae 15a–16a.  And across the country, “many perpetrators of domestic violence are charged with misdemeanors,” despite “the harmfulness of their conduct.” Voisine v. United States, 579 U.S. 686, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 1).  So “a ‘felon’ is” not always “more dangerous than a misdemeanant.” Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 14 (1985).  But calling an offense a misdemeanor usually limits prison time to one year. See 1 W. LaFave, J. Israel, N. King, & O. Kerr, Criminal Procedure §1.8(c) (4th ed. Supp. 2020).  States thus tend to apply that label to less violent and less dangerous crimes.  In California, it is a misdemeanor to litter on a public beach. See Cal. Penal Code Ann. §374.7(a) (2020).  And to “negligently cut” a plant “growing upon public land.” §384a(a)(2), (f ). And to “willfully disturb[] another person by loud and unreasonable noise.” §415(2).  And (last one) to “artificially color[] any live chicks [or] rabbits.” §599(b). In forbidding such conduct, California is no outlier.  Most States count as misdemeanors such offenses as traffic violations, public intoxication, and disorderly conduct.  See, e.g., Tex. Transp. Code Ann. §545.413(a), (d) (West 2011) (driving without a seatbelt); Ill. Comp. Stat., ch. 610, §90/1 (West 2018) (drinking alcohol in a railroad car); Ark. Code Ann. §5–71–207(a)(3), (b) (2016) (using obscene language likely to promote disorder). So the amicus’s (and concurrence’s) rule would cover lawbreakers of every type, including quite a few hard to think alarming.

June 23, 2021 at 10:34 AM | Permalink


Roberts concurrence is notable if not totally surprising with his concurrence in another recent 4A opinion.

The fact that only Alito joined him (though Kavanaugh was sympathetic with it) is suggestive.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 23, 2021 11:11:08 AM

I'm not sure why the Roberts opinion is a concurrence rather than a dissent. It seems like he generally agrees with the opinion of the California court that hot pursuit of a misdemeanor suspect is always an exception to the warrant requirement.

I am not thrilled with the majority opinion. Like some of the other cases this term, it seems like the majority does not like the label but is authorizing the conduct under a different label that make the rules that officers have to follow less clear.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 23, 2021 4:56:52 PM

The reason it was a concurrence confused me some too though the majority dropped a footnote saying that Roberts ultimately also put strings that limited the breadth of his rule.

The Court seems not to want too broad of a rule allowing entry into a home, but leaves open exceptions like exigent circumstances that many police and lower courts could (if they want) to do much of what they do now.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 23, 2021 6:29:12 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB