American laws are very protective of a person’s right to privacy on their property. As a result, there are rigid constraints on when government or law enforcement officials can enter private property without consent. In most situations, law enforcement officials must provide the court with probable cause of illegal activity and request a warrant to search the property for specific evidence.
Nevertheless, police officers may lawfully enter private property without a warrant in exigent circumstances. Exigent circumstances involve situations where time is of the essence, and waiting for a warrant to be issued could result in deep societal harm. Typically, exigent circumstances exist if individuals are in imminent danger, a criminal suspect is fleeing, or evidence is being eradicated.
What Is Probable Cause?
Probable cause refers to the reasonable belief that an individual will commit a crime or other offense. Without first establishing probable cause, any criminal search of the individual’s body, belongings, or property will be unreasonable. This means that anything that the search reveals will most likely be useless when convicting the defendant. There must be factual evidence to support the suspicion for a reasonable belief to exist.
Generally speaking, probable cause requires more than a mere suspicion that a suspect committed a crime but not enough info to confirm that the individual is guilty of a crime (beyond a reasonable doubt). The thought must be based on factual evidence, not superficial suspicion.
A typical example of this would be when a police officer decides to pull someone over on the highway. Suppose the motorist is weaving, speeding, braking suddenly, or driving erratically. It could be sufficient evidence to cause the police officer to have probable cause that the individual is driving while under the influence. The police can then pull over the suspect based on their swerving, which provides probable cause for the stop.
Nevertheless, if the driver is driving normally and following all traffic laws, the police might not be able to pull the individual over for drunk driving. This is because they have no probable cause to think that the individual is driving while drunk.
The court issuing the warrant uses a test to resolve whether probable cause exists. This test is based on whether an objective person of reasonable intelligence would think that the circumstances suggest that the individual arrested or detained has committed or is committing a crime. And, in cases in which police officers are permitted to make a warrantless arrest or conduct a warrantless search or seizure, probable cause is still needed.
What Are the Sources of Probable Cause?
For an arrest, search, or seizure of property to be permitted, an officer must establish probable cause to a judge or magistrate. An officer may rely on four general categories of evidence when establishing probable cause.
Proof from any of these four categories would most likely permit an officer to perform a lawful arrest or perform a search:
- Observation: Any information that an officer gets through observation may be used to establish probable cause. Typical examples of probable cause based on observation could include anything within an officer’s “plain view” or “plain smell” or anything else based on what an officer sees, hears, smells, or feels. Further, police dogs may also conduct searches wherein the evidence uncovered is admissible;
- Circumstantial Evidence: Further, an officer may rely on indirect evidence that suggests something has happened but does not instantly verify it. An example of this would be how an officer responding to a robbery may have probable cause for arresting or searching a person found hiding in an alleyway or driving away from the scene with bags in hand. Although the evidence of the individual fleeing might not directly demonstrate that they committed the robbery, the circumstantial evidence provides probable cause for an officer to search;
- Expertise: An officer may use their knowledge and training to identify specific movements, gestures, preparations, or tools to indicate criminal activity. An example of this would be how an officer may use their expertise on drug paraphernalia to show probable cause that the items may have been used concerning drug crimes. Nevertheless, expertise and training could be deemed relative and should be used in coexistence with other categories of evidence; and
- Information: An officer may use the information received from reliable sources to show probable cause. Such information could include reports by witnesses or victims, obtaining information from an informant, or responding to a police scanner/radio call. Recently, the courts scrutinized details obtained from an informant, primarily when the information was received through an anonymous tip.
What Is Needed to Prove Exigent Circumstances in Court?
There is no standard test to confirm whether exigent circumstances exist since the situation is one of the extraordinary circumstances. Rather, the court will typically look when the officer does the warrantless search to see if a reasonable officer at the scene would think it was pressing to act and impracticable to secure a warrant.
Some of the factors that the court might use include:
- Obvious evidence of probable cause;
- The gravity of the offense and likelihood of destruction of evidence;
- Limits on the search to minimize the intrusion only to prevent the destruction of evidence;
- Degree of haste involved;
- Amount of time needed to get a warrant;
- Whether the evidence is about to be removed or destroyed;
- Hazard at the site;
- Knowledge of the suspect that police are on their trail;
- The ready destructibility of the evidence; or
- Potential damage 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 get a warrant before searching.
What If the Police Created the Exigent Circumstances?
Police departments often create undercover operations to prevent crimes preemptively. Other conditions may cause a police officer to unknowingly cause a suspect to react, which raises one of the exigent circumstances listed above.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that even if the police officer caused the exigent circumstances permitting a warrantless search, any evidence acquired by that search is still valid as long as the officer did not violate or threaten to violate the 4th Amendment.
Do the Police Need Solid Proof That an Exigent Circumstance Exists?
No, police only need probable cause to think that exigent circumstances exist to enter a premise without a warrant. In other words, if there is enough evidence to give officers a reasonable suspicion that an exigent circumstance exists, they may enter without a warrant.
Even if the reasonable suspicion turns out to be wrong, police officers will still be covered by the exigent circumstance doctrine.
Can an Exigent Circumstance Create Probable Cause?
Yes. A notable case addressing this matter involved a 911 emergency call in which the caller failed to say anything to the emergency dispatcher on the line. When police arrived at the location of the call, there was no response at the door.
The court, in that case, ruled that under those events, it was reasonable for the police to enter the home without a warrant as it was appropriate for the officers to think in that situation that someone inside may have needed emergency medical assistance.
What Counts as Proof for Probable Cause?
An officer only needs enough evidence to raise a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or exigent circumstances to satisfy the probable cause requirement.
Evidence commonly used to satisfy probable cause includes:
- The smell of drugs;
- Invitation for help or aid;
- Clearly visible violence;
- Sounds of objects being moved or destroyed; or
- The suspect ran away from law enforcement officials.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If your house has been searched or entered based on a claim of exigent circumstances, you should speak to a lawyer immediately. A local criminal lawyer can help you resolve whether the search was lawful and advise you of your rights. In addition, an attorney can gather physical evidence, interview witnesses, research possible defenses, negotiate with the prosecutor, and represent you in court.