Exigent Circumstances: Definition & Cases

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
For police, a warrant is typically needed to enter a home, however, under exigent circumstances police are justified to enter without one. In this lesson, we will define exigent circumstance and explore the situations in which they apply.

Warrant-less Searches

''Police!'' ''Open up!'' Tim heard right after a knock. He turned the TV down, and the door flew open and police rushed in. They handcuffed him and then saw some drugs in a baggie on the coffee table. Tim asked to see a warrant, but they said they didn't need one. Why wouldn't they need a warrant?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from searching a person without probable cause and entering their home without a warrant based on probable cause. Probable cause is the legal standard that police use to determine if they can obtain a warrant, or execute an arrest or a search. To have probable cause, police must have a reasonable belief, under their knowledge and the circumstances, that a crime has occurred, and the person did it. For a search, the reasonable belief must be that evidence of a crime exists, and it is in an area to be searched.

Does that apply to outside in public? Chad is walking to his car from the park. Police had observed him exchange money for a baggie from a known drug dealer. Based on their knowledge of the drug activity in the area, probable cause most likely exists to search Chad for drugs. In this situation, the Fourth Amendment requires probable cause, but not a warrant.

But what about Chad's car? He hadn't made it back to his car, so no probable cause exists that contraband would be in the car. However, if they witnessed Chad opening his trunk, tossing a bag in, and getting in the car, then they would have probable cause to search the car and the trunk.

When A Warrant Is Needed

The Fourth Amendment says probable cause is needed for a warrant but doesn't say when a warrant is needed. The U.S. Supreme Court has created a standard for when a warrant is needed based on the person's expectation of privacy, which means the level of privacy a reasonable person expects in their immediate surroundings. For example, in your home, this expectation is the highest as there are walls, windows with shades and doors keeping people from observing you. The lowest would be a nude beach, where any privacy expectation is absurd.

Police need a warrant to enter a home, however, in an emergency, no warrant is needed.
Police Entry

Thus, in a home, a warrant is needed for the police to enter even if they have probable cause. Let's say Chad lived right across from the park and walked into his house. Probable cause allowed them to search Chad in the park or his car, so why not in his home? The answer is based on Chad's expectation of privacy, which is greatest at his home.

Exigent Circumstances

Typically, the concept of exigent circumstances, which allow emergency entry to an area that requires a warrant, applies to the home, which has the highest level of privacy expectation. However, exigent circumstances can exist when police need to open a trunk, a backpack, safety deposit box or even search a pocket if the police reasonably believe that a risk of bodily injury exists.

Threat Of Bodily Harm

Let's say when Chad ran into his home, police decided to wait for a warrant. But then they heard some screaming coming from the home, and it sounded like someone being beaten. Exigent circumstances then allow the police to enter the otherwise protected area to prevent bodily harm.

But what if they get in there and it turns out Chad and his girlfriend were practicing for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew? It doesn't matter. If the belief was reasonable, under the circumstances, then any arrest or seizure would be lawful.

Destruction of the Evidence

Exigent circumstances also cover the destruction of evidence. If police heard, ''Chad, the cops! Flush it! '' This might create a reasonable belief that evidence might be destroyed. So why don't the police use this every time they are waiting on a warrant for drug possession or distribution? The reason is, the belief that exigent circumstances might exist must be reasonable and based on the circumstances. The general knowledge that drug dealers have been known to flush drugs down the drain isn't enough.

Along the same vein as the destruction of evidence, if police believe that the suspect will flee before the warrant arrives, they can enter a protected area and detain him until the warrant arrives.

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