Exigent Circumstances - Part One

by Charles Gillingham

Officers are frequently confronted with emergencies that need to be immediately dealt with, that may not fit the requirement for a warrant, and may result in the entry of areas protected by the Fourth Amendment.  Unfortunately for peace officers, the guidance given by the Courts in these situations is sometimes contradictory and often times very fact driven.  Below, the Legal Update will try to provide some guidance and questions to ask yourself when confronted by an exigent circumstance. 



The test for an exigent circumstance entry is whether the entry was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.  The Court will look to see if thepublic concerns for the search or seizure advances the public good versus the severity of the interference with the 4th amendment right.  The worse the emergency, the higher the justification for the action.  Of course, the reason there is concern in a criminal case regarding these types of entries is when evidence of a crime is found in the location.  



While not an exhaustive list, Courts have upheld warrantless entries based on the following scenarios:

Imminent threat of death or GBI to a person--Some cases actually evaluate the reasonableness of such an entry based on what the public would say if a peace officer had NOT acted. 

Sick/Injured Person-Officers go to the door and knock, hear moaning, upheld; 911 call of an accidental stabbing, upheld; Fight in progress inside house, officers outside see the fight and enter, upheld; Officers were told a victim of a violent act was on the way to the hospital, they see blood and enter home where it occurred, because of other potential victims, upheld.

Dead Body-can enter to confirm.  Then get a warrant, there is no homicide/dead body/crime scene exception to the warrant requirement.  In each example, an exigent circumstance entry and plain view observations are fine, but then get a warrant. 

911 hang-ups-may provide authority to force entry based on exigent circumstances. Officers will want to know things like: whether or not someone said something on the call, whether the dispatcher called back and there was no answer or a hang up, what the residence looks like, (ie door open, lights on, movement), prior to making an entry. 



The Court will look at whether the facts at the time of entry would lead a reasonable officer to believe that there was an urgent need to enter based on the reasonable officer's training and experience. 

The Court evaluates the severity of the potential harm, i.e.death, GBI or destruction of property.  How imminent is the threat?  What else could have been done?  Could a warrant have been issued?  What cause did officers have to believe they needed to make entry?  While probable cause is not absolutely required it will make the entry much more supportable if you do have probable cause to believe entry is demanded. 

Remember, prior to making an exigent circumstance entry to gather as many facts about the situation as possible, and be sure to document the facts known to you at the time of the entry and your justifications for entry for your protection and the protection of the case.