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Exigent Circumstances

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What Are Exigent Circumstances?

Exigent Circumstances provide a legal basis for police to enter a structure without a warrant. It must be a situation where people are in imminent danger or a suspect is about to escape or destroy evidence. A search made as a result of an entry due to exigent circumstances can be constitutional if exigent circumstances exist.

What Is Needed to Prove Exigent Circumstances in Court?

There is no standard test to establish whether exigent circumstances exist since the situation is one of extraordinary circumstances. However, there are several factors that are looked at:

  • Clear evidence of probable cause;
  • The seriousness of the offense and likelihood of destruction of evidence;
  • Limitations on the search to minimize the intrusion only to preventing destruction of evidence;
  • Degree of urgency involved;
  • Amount of time needed to get a warrant;
  • Whether evidence is about to be removed or destroyed;
  • Danger at the site;
  • Knowledge of the suspect that police are on his or her trail;
  • Ready destructibility of the evidence.
  • Potential harm to the defendant or others inside the home.

Once an entry is made due to exigent circumstances, it may still be necessary for police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search.

What If the Police Created the Exigent Circumstances?

Police departments often create undercover operations to preemptively prevent crimes. Other situations may cause a police officer to unknowingly cause a suspect to react in a way which raises one of the circumstances listed above. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that in these circumstances, the facts and evidence uncovered by the police is permissible in a trial as long as the police did not violate or threaten to violate the 4th Amendment.

Do Police Need Solid Proof That an Exigent Circumstance Exists?

No, police only need proof that there would be probable cause to enter a home under exigent circumstances. In other words, there only has to be proof of a suspicion that evidence is being destroyed or harm is being done to an individual or other exigent circumstances. The police need not be correct to be covered by the exigent circumstance doctrine.

Can an Exigent Circumstance Create Probable Cause?

Yes, although the most extensive test of this situation is a case where a 911 emergency call was made but there was no response from the person who made the call. There was also no response when the police came to the door of the caller. The court in that case ruled that under those circumstances, it was reasonable for the police to enter the home without a warrant as there could easily have been people inside in need of emergency assistance.

What Counts as Proof for Probable Cause?

Proof for probable cause is extremely broad in order to accommodate as many emergency situations as possible. A common list of proof includes:

  • Smell of drugs
  • Invitation for aid or assistance
  • Violence which is clearly visible
  • Sounds of objects being moved or destroyed
  • Suspect running into a home for any reason

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If your home has been searched or entered based on a claim of exigent circumstances, you should speak to a lawyer immediately. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can  help you determine whether the search was legal and advise you of your rights. A lawyer can also represent you in court.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 08-12-2014 03:32 PM PDT

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