Police chases are a staple of evening TV. The police officer is chasing a person, and the person runs through a house. Typically on TV, the police officer just barges through the door, and flying tackles the person to the ground. But is that how it works in the real world?

Or put differently, if you’re suspected of having committed a crime, is it legal for a police officer to follow you into your home?

The answer, as with many things in law, is a very firm “well, that depends.”

There was a case in California where a man named Lange was playing loud music in his car, and blaring his horn. This happens every day, but in this particular case it happened right in front of a California highway patrol officer. 

The officer put on his lights, and instead of pulling over Lange just drive the very short distance – a hundred feet or so – home. He pulled into his home’s attached garage. 

Typically, a police officer would need a warrant to enter an attached garage. But based on the legal idea that he was “in hot pursuit”, the officer entered Lange’s garage without a warrant. He smelled alcohol, administered field sobriety tests, and Lange was arrested for misdemeanor drunk driving.

In California, as in Wisconsin, the officer was considered justified. He’d justifiably entered the garage in pursuit of the suspect, and made the arrest.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, saw the matter differently.

To make a long story short, the Supreme Court says that the circumstances of each case need to be considered before determining whether it’s reasonable for an officer to enter a property without a warrant. Some things that could constitute valid reasons to enter without a warrant include:

  • Imminent harm to others
  • A threat to the officer himself
  • Destruction of evidence
  • Escape from the home

But importantly, the fact that a person is believed to have committed a misdemeanor doesn’t inherently mean that the police don’t need a warrant.

Even adding the fact that the person is running from the police, it still doesn’t necessarily mean the police don’t need a warrant.

The test, according to the Supreme Court, is whether the “totality of circumstances” create a situation that requires the police to act before they can get a warrant. And according to the Supreme Court, that didn’t apply to Lange who hadn’t actually been observed doing anything other than making a bunch of loud noises in public.

Or put differently, being loud and annoying might be a crime (“disturbing the peace”), but it’s not the kind of crime that means police can kick your door down.

As always, this doesn’t seem like it matters all that much on the surface. But it’s been said numerous times that “it’s a pretty poor cop that can’t find something to arrest you for.” And if every suspicion of every minor crime created a situation where police could enter our homes and search without a warrant, that would be a society that none of us would want to live in.

Would Lange have been charged with OWI if the police had gotten the warrant? Almost certainly, as his blood alcohol was 3 times the legal limit. It still would’ve been high when the warrant came back. 

But is it important that everybody follow the rules, including the police? Absolutely. It’s even more important that the police follow the rules, since they have disproportionate power. “With great power comes great responsibility” – and that definitely applies to the police.

This is also a reminder of the value of making sure you’re represented by a qualified lawyer when you’re charged with a crime. While these seem like nitpicky little details when we’re talking about them online, these nitpicky little legal details can make the difference between spending the next several years in jail and being free to spend those years with your friends & family.

If you ever have any legal issues you need help with, I’m just a phone call away. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!

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