What are exigent circumstances?

Exigent circumstances are situations when the need of a police officer to enter or search a dwelling overrides the Constitutional right to be free from warrantless searches. Police typically can't just enter without a warrant or an invitation; the exceptions to this rule are called exigent circumstances. As the court said in People v. Riddle when explaining exigent circumstances: ""When emergency circumstances exist… constitutional requirements, such as the need for a warrant… may be excused because of overriding necessity." ((1978) 83 Cal.App.3d 563)

Defining Exigent Circumstances

All states permit a warrantless search in exigent circumstances, but courts have struggled over the years to define exactly what constitutes an emergency. Whether a situation constitutes exigent circumstances or not will typically be determined by the judge in a criminal case.

For instance, a person on trial for drug crimes who had police enter his home without a warrant could argue that any evidence law enforcement obtained as a result of their illegal entry into his home should be kept out of court. Law enforcement would argue that exigent circumstances existed for the warrantless entry, or that they had a pressing need to enter the home without a warrant. In this situation, the police would most likely argue that the possibility of losing the drug evidence was high because the defendant could have easily flushed it down the toilet.

The judge in the criminal case would review the information and arguments presented and decide if the police really did have a legitimate need to enter in an emergency situation, based on exigent circumstances. If they did, the evidence would be allowed in and if they did not, then the evidence would be suppressed or kept out.

Applying Exigent Circumstances to a Criminal Case

The application of the exigent circumstances rule means that a warrantless search becomes legal. Normally, if the police enter a house without permission or a warrant, any evidence they collect would be considered "tainted" by their illegal search and would be kept out of court.

When exigent circumstances exist, however, the evidence that the police seize can be used in a criminal trial. For instance, if police break into a locked building because they heard screams (an example of exigent circumstances), anything the police saw could be used in a trial against the person committing the crime inside.

What Are Exigent Circumstances?

The decision as to whether exigent circumstances exist is made on a case-by-case basis and the judge considers what the police officers knew at the time when they acted. For instance, if an officer knocked on the door of a home and heard screams, the officer could state this as a fact proving exigent circumstances. If it later turned out that the individual who lived in the home had been convicted of homicide in the past, this fact would not be considered in determining whether exigent circumstances existed unless the officer knew of the criminal record at the time.

Examples of Exigent Circumstances

There are some common situations where the court is likely to find that exigent circumstances do exist. For instance, the threat of imminent danger to a person or property has repeatedly been held to give officers the right to enter. Examples of situations that can suggest imminent danger include a reasonable suspicion that a robbery is in progress; the sound of shots being fired; a homicide occurring at the scene; a situation where police have received a request from a reliable source to check on the welfare of an individual; a threat to officer safety; or a reasonable belief that the premises contains a PCP or methamphetamine lab.

Evanescent Evidence

A reasonable belief that evidence is about to be destroyed can also constitute exigent circumstances. In one case for instance, police officers followed a suspected drug dealer to an apartment complex after he sold drugs to an undercover officer. Police officers knocked on the door of the apartment (which later turned out to have been a different apartment) and then heard sounds they thought were evidence being destroyed. They announced their intent to enter and went in. The Supreme Court said the police acted appropriately even though they entered an apartment different from the one the original suspect had entered, because they didn't create the exigent circumstances and because they were allowed to take action when they thought evidence was being destroyed.

Hot Pursuit

Finally, a reasonable belief that a suspect is about to escape can also constitute exigent circumstances. When officers are in "hot pursuit" of a suspect they can follow the suspect into buildings even without a warrant. Likewise, when police officers have circumstantial evidence of imminent escape, police officers can also act without a warrant. 

Challenging a Warrantless Search

When police do act without a warrant, it is up to them to prove that they acted appropriately. Anyone who believes his constitutional rights were violated by a warrantless entry or search should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney for information on having the evidence suppressed. An attorney can help to disprove a law enforcement claim of exigent circumstances in order to have illegally collected evidence kept out of the trial.