Exigent Circumstances v. Search Warrant

by Charles Gillingham

Regular readers of the legal update are reminded to "just get a search warrant." As readers know, warrant search is very difficult for the defendant to overcome, whereas a warrantless search is open to the interpretation of a reviewing court during a suppression motion. There are occasions, however, when it may be more efficient to proceed without a warrant. As the case we are going to review points out, a warrant is not always necessary. When you read this case, though, think to yourself, "would a warrant have been a good idea?"

The court in the People v. Superior Court (Chapman) (2012) 204 Cal.App.4th 1004, examined a case with a unique set of facts. In this instance the police arrived to a report of shots fired at a house. When the officers arrived there were people on the street yelling that there was shooting inside of the house in question. Two people exited the residence, one clearly screaming that the other had shot "him" inside the residence. The suspect was noncommittal but said to the officers that they should help the person inside.

The suspect was pat searched and a gun was found. As a result of this discovery the officers entered the house and conducted a protective sweep. The suspect's son was found dead in the kitchen. Also in the house the officers found shell casings near the body, bullet holes in the wall, and blood.


There were at least six separate entries to the residence by law enforcement over the next seven hours, each after the suspect was arrested and taken to headquarters for questioning. In the first, detectives entered and saw a gun and gunshots in the wall. An hour later a photographer entered and took pictures. Shortly thereafter crime scene investigators entered and processed the scene. While they were processing, another detective entered and viewed the residence. The final entry was by the coroner who removed the body and found a shell casing under the body. The defendant was charged with murder and moved to suppress all evidence found in the home.


The Appellate Court held that officers may enter a residence if they have a reasonable suspicion someone on the premises needs immediate assistance. Therefore the officers initial entry into the house was lawful and that everything in plain view was admissible. The problem, of course, is the subsequent entries. The defendant argued that the officers should not have entered after the initial entry by the two detectives.

The trial court agreed and suppressed all of the evidence seized and observed after the first two detectives entered. Fortunately the appellate court disagreed. The Appellate court held that officers do not need a warrant if they have a legal exigent circumstance entry and that after the emergency has diffused if the following are true; their objective was to process or seize evidence in plain view; immediate seizure of that evidence is impractical; and the premises are under police control.

Here there was uninterrupted police presence, a close in time search of areas that were legally entered and immediate seizure would have interrupted the detectives primary duty to secure the scene and check for other victims.

The third detective who entered saw a bullet fragment in the closed refrigerator. That evidence was suppressed because it was not in plain view.

Remember, the well trained officer is aware that there is no "homicide scene" exception to the warrant requirement. After the initial view of the scene, the safe course of action would have been to get a search warrant to process the scene.