American laws are very protective of a person’s right to privacy on their own property. As a result, there are strict restrictions on when government or law enforcement officials can enter private property without permission. In most situations, law enforcement officials must provide the court with probable cause that an illegal activity has occurred and request a warrant to search the property for specific evidence.
However, police officers may legally enter private property without the aid of a warrant if there are exigent circumstances. Exigent circumstances involve situations where time is of the essence and waiting for a warrant to be issued could result in serious societal harm. Generally, exigent circumstances exist if people are in imminent danger, a criminal suspect is escaping, or evidence is being destroyed.
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. Instead, the court will typically look at the time when the officer makes the warrantless search to see if a reasonable officer at the scene would believe that it was urgent to act and impractical to secure a warrant. Some of the factors that the court might use include:
- 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; and/or
- 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 exigent circumstances listed above.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that even if the police officer caused the exigent circumstances allowing a warrantless search, any evidence obtained by that search is still valid as long as the officer did not violate or threaten to violate the 4th Amendment.
Do Police Need Solid Proof That an Exigent Circumstance Exists?
No, police only need probable cause to believe 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, then 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 famous case addressing this issue 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 circumstances, it was reasonable for the police to enter the home without a warrant as it was reasonable for the officers to believe 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 illegal activity or exigent circumstances to satisfy the probable cause requirement. Evidence commonly used to satisfy probable cause includes:
- Smell of drugs;
- Invitation for aid or assistance;
- Violence which is clearly visible;
- Sounds of objects being moved or destroyed; and/or
- Suspect running away from law enforcement officials.
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. A local criminal lawyer can help you determine whether the search was legal 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.