By Leslie Stevens, Vice President, Legal, Lexipol, LLC
t is not news to anyone that searches conducted without warrants are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few narrowly construed exceptions.1 One such exception to the warrant requirement is commonly referred to as “hot pursuit.”
The U.S. Supreme Court laid the groundwork for the hot pursuit exception in 1967 when the court concluded that “(t)he Fourth Amendment does not require police officers to delay in the course of an investigation if to do so would gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others.”2 By 1976 the exception was firmly established when the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that an officer’s warrantless entry in a home while in hot pursuit of a felony suspect did not violate the Fourth Amendment.3 While the Supreme Court has made it clear that a hot pursuit exception to the warrant requirement exists, it has not clearly established the scope of the exception.
Eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a warrantless entry following hot pursuit of a felony suspect, the court decided a case in which officers entered a home without a warrant and arrested the suspect for a non-jailable traffic offense.4 The court concluded that the warrantless entry into the suspect’s home violated the Fourth Amendment. In that case, officers received a tip that led them to the suspect’s house. The court concluded that the hot pursuit exception did not apply because “there was no immediate or continuous pursuit of [the suspect] from the scene of a crime.”5 The court noted that an “important factor” to be considered is the gravity of the offense and “a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense, such as the kind at issue in this case, has been committed.”6
Since that time, some U.S. courts have applied this rational to conclude that the hot pursuit exception does not apply if the suspected offense is only a misdemeanor. In fact, federal and state courts nationwide have been sharply divided on the question of whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that suspect. The U.S. Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to determine whether and when it is permissible to make a warrantless entry to arrest a person suspected of a misdemeanor.
In the case of Stanton v. Sims, an officer responded to a call about an unknown disturbance involving a person with a baseball bat. Officer Stanton knew the neighborhood was known for “violence associated with the area gangs.”7 He approached the place where the disturbance had been reported and noticed three men walking in the street. Upon seeing the police car, one of the men crossed the street about 25 yards in front of Stanton’s car and ran or quickly walked toward a residence. Stanton considered the behavior suspicious and decided to detain the man in order to investigate. Stanton got out of his patrol car, called out “police,” and ordered the suspect to stop in a voice loud enough for all in the area to hear. The suspect did not stop. Instead, he looked directly at Stanton, ignored his lawful orders, and quickly went through the front gate of a fence into a front yard. The wooden gate was more than six feet tall and blocked Officer Stanton’s view of the yard when closed. Stanton believed the suspect had committed a jailable misdemeanor under California law by failing to stop and also “fear[ed] for [his] safety.”8 He made the decision to kick open the gate in pursuit of the suspect. Unfortunately, the homeowner, Ms. Drendolyn Sims, was standing behind the gate when it flew open, and it struck her. In response, she sued Officer Stanton.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide once and for all whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits a warrantless entry in pursuit of a person suspected of a misdemeanor. Instead on November 4, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided what we already knew—the law did not clearly establish that a warrantless entry to a home, in hot pursuit of a suspect whom an officer has probable cause to arrest for a misdemeanor, violates the Fourth Amendment. Because the law was not clearly established, Officer Stanton was entitled to qualified immunity.
So what is known at this point? For one, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a warrantless entry following hot pursuit of a felony suspect. It is generally understood that a non-jailable offense such as a traffic infraction may qualify for the hot pursuit exception in only the rarest of occasions, if ever. State and federal courts remain divided on the issue of whether the Fourth Amendment allows a warrantless entry following hot pursuit of a person suspected of committing a misdemeanor, and the U.S. Supreme Court gave no hint of what it thinks in that scenario. It is clear, though, that a warrantless entry following hot pursuit should never be routine, and it is reasonable to assume that hot pursuit must involve a serious offense and a serious risk such as the destruction of evidence, officer or public safety, or escape to qualify under the exception to the Fourth Amendment. ♦
1Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).
2Warden Md. Penitentiary v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 298–299 (1967).
3United States v. Santana, 427 U. S. 38 (1976).
4Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984).
5Id. at 753.
7Stanton v. Sims, 571 U.S.___, 2013 WL 5878007 (Nov. 4, 2013).
Please cite as:
Leslie Stevens, “Stanton v. Sims: Warrantless Entry in Hot Pursuit,” Chief’s Counsel, The Police Chief 81 (February 2014): 16.