Does the Fourth Amendment Let Police Follow You into Your Home?

Police officer using radio

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you from police searches of your home, your body, and your property without a warrant. But there are exceptions. The United States Supreme Court will soon decide whether a Fourth Amendment exception allows police to follow you into your garage when they suspect drunk driving.

What Are Your Fourth Amendment Rights?

The Fourth Amendment is designed to protect citizens from the government intruding into their privacy without a good reason. It shields you from unreasonable searches and seizures (arrests or detentions). As a general rule, before the police (or any other government official) can search your home, go through your car, or make you turn out your pockets, they need to get a warrant from a judge saying that a crime probably happened and you probably were the one involved.

However, there are many exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s general rule, too many to cover in one blog post. There are rules about when a police officer can search a car on the highway, pat down a person, question them about a crime, and other exceptions. Today’s post will focus on two of them:

Hot Pursuit

Hot pursuit happens when the police chase someone they believe committed a crime into a place they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to go. For example, if a police officer watches a person snatch a woman’s purse and runs after them, they can enter private property to retrieve the purse and arrest the person with theft crimes.

Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances mean that some emergency on the property allows the police to enter a place they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to go. This could be because it appears someone is in danger (such as a 9-1-1 call related to a medical emergency) or there is a risk that evidence of a crime will be destroyed. For example, imagine the police knock on a person’s door and hear someone inside say “It’s the cops. Flush the drugs!” The police would then have exigent circumstances to enter the home and seize evidence to support drug charges before it went down the drain.

How the Fourth Amendment Exclusionary Rule Works in Court

When police search a person’s property in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, the remedy happens during the resulting criminal case. Instead of suing the police for infringing on your rights, you and your criminal defense attorney can ask the court to exclude any evidence that resulted from the search or arrest -- including physical objects, blood and alcohol testing, or statements you made to the police -- from your criminal case.

At Berman Law, our criminal defense attorneys know how to take full advantage of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule. We review all our cases for constitutional violations. When we find them we take the issue to court, to protect our clients’ fourth Fourth Amendment rights and make sure that wrongfully obtained evidence isn’t used against them. Often, winning a motion to exclude evidence based on the Fourth Amendment Exclusionary Rule can result in a substantially improved plea offer or even having your criminal case dismissed entirely.

Does Suspect Pursuit Change Create “Exigent Circumstances”?

When prosecutors are facing a motion under the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule, they will often claim that the police were acting appropriately because of “exigent circumstances.” That’s what happened in Lange v California. A California police officer was following Mr. Lange for allegedly playing his music too loud and honking his horn. However, the police officer waited until Mr. Lange opened his garage door before turning on his lights and trying to perform a traffic stop. Mr. Lange, now on his own property, pulled into his garage and started to close the door. The officer stuck his foot under it, triggering the safety sensor, and followed Lange into his garage to perform a drunk driving traffic stop.

Mr. Lange’s attorneys said that this was an illegal entry into Lange’s house without a warrant and that all the evidence -- including the preliminary breath tests -- the officer found within the garage needed to be excluded from his trial. However, the prosecutor said the officer was in “hot pursuit” of Mr. Lange, who he had witnessed committing a misdemeanor offense (drunk driving), so he was allowed to follow Mr. Lange into his garage.

The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari to review the matter. The highest Court has previously said that police can pursue defendants who committed felonies, but in cases of traffic violations with no jail time warrantless entry “should rarely be sanctioned.” Now the Court will review whether the risk of a person’s blood alcohol level dropping while an officer seeks a warrant is “exigent circumstances” enough to allow the police to follow you into your home (or garage) and arrest you for drunk driving.

It is nearly impossible to predict how the Supreme Court will rule on any case, especially before the oral arguments are held. The answer to whether hot pursuit and exigent circumstances can justify warrantless entry in a misdemeanor case remains to be determined. However, if you have been charged with a similar crime, you may not be able to wait.

At Berman Law, our criminal defense attorneys understand the rules on hot pursuit and exigent circumstances, and we know how police and prosecutors use these Fourth Amendment exceptions to justify otherwise unconstitutional behavior. If you have been charged after the police entered your home illegally, we will advocate for your constitutional rights to make sure that evidence isn’t used against you. If you are in Delaware County, Media, Pennsylvania, or the surrounding areas, we welcome you to contact us to speak with us about how we can help with your criminal case.

Categories: Criminal Law

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