The legal term exigent circumstances refers to a situation in which a law enforcement officer with a pressing need to enter a residence without a warrant, is allowed to do so without violating the resident’s constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure. This is because emergency circumstances often outweigh the need for a warrant.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires police officers to have a warrant before performing a search, or entering someone’s home. However, if an officer has reason to believe there is an emergency occurring inside that is endangering a person there, or that evidence is being destroyed, he may enter, after announcing himself, without a warrant. To explore this concept, consider the following exigent circumstance definition.
Definition of Exigent Circumstance
- A situation or circumstance that requires immediate action.
What are Exigent Circumstances
In the U.S., the concept of exigent circumstance applies to the application of the Fourth Amendment’s right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The specifics of how law enforcement officers are allowed to act within the bounds of this constitutional right have been hammered out in the highest court in the land over many decades. As a result, officers are not allowed to simply enter a residence to “see what they can see,” but must apply for a search warrant based on a reasonable belief that a crime is being committed, or that crucial evidence of a crime is inside.
Law enforcement officers may enter a dwelling if invited, though even then, they cannot search without a warrant. Evidence that is out “in plain sight,” may be used, however, in a case to which it is significant. The existence of an exigent circumstance, however, places the no-entry rule on hold, giving officers a limited right to enter and/or search a dwelling before obtaining a warrant.
In such a circumstance, officers have the right to clear the area for safety reasons, ensuring there are no other suspects hiding, and no weapons. They must then request a search warrant, and wait until it is issued before actually conducting a thorough search.
What Constitutes an Exigent Circumstance
While every state accepts that emergency situations making it necessary to enter a dwelling immediately, without a warrant or invitation, sometimes exist, the courts have had difficulty defining just what constitutes an emergency situation. While the officers must make such a decision on the spur of the moment, the decision about whether exigent circumstances actually existed at the time will likely be made by the court on a case-by-case basis.
In doing so, the court considers just what police officers knew about the circumstance at the time they decided to act. If, for instance, police knocked on someone’s door and heard someone screaming for help inside, they would certainly be justified in entering the home, as the screaming person may be in danger. In the 1978 case of People v. Riddle, the California Supreme Court made a ruling regarding exigent circumstances:
“When emergency circumstances exist … constitutional requirements, such as the need for a warrant … may be excused because of overriding necessity,” and it went on to say that “the principle of exigent circumstances is not restricted to situations where human life is at stake.”
In the report of the incident, the officers would need to clearly describe what circumstances existed that prompted them to enter the home without being invited, and without a warrant. Without an appropriate and convincing reason, the suspect in the house could argue that any evidence the officers had obtained while in his home under such pretense was obtained by illegal entry, and therefore should not be allowed in court.
The possibilities of a medical emergency or a person in imminent danger are not the only exigent circumstances that may allow entry, however. If police have arrived at the dwelling with reasonable cause to believe the person inside is committing a crime, such as trafficking in drugs, the possibility that the drug evidence was being flushed down the toilet, or otherwise destroyed, has been deemed an exigent circumstance.
Examples of Exigent Circumstances
The legal system in the U.S. runs on a complex system of Constitutional edicts, laws, rules, and regulations. Law enforcement agencies and the court systems are charged with upholding the law, as well as interpreting those laws when circumstances require further scrutiny. Because no two cases are alike, there has to be some allowances made in order for the legal system to serve justice.
Police Secure Drug Trafficker in Home While Waiting for Search Warrant
The U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, ruled in the 2002 appeal of United States of America v. Vaatausili Mark Alaimalo, that:
“Even without a warrant, police may sometimes enter a home to secure it when exigent circumstances exist. “[E]xigent circumstances are present when a reasonable person [would] believe that entry … was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts.” [as quoted from Bailey v. Newland, 263 F.3d 1022, 1033 (9th Cir. 2001).]
In the case against Alaimalo, law enforcement officers had tracked the defendant and another suspect after they took possession of a large package of methamphetamine, though the officers had replaced the drug with pseudomethamphetamine prior to its delivery. The suspects went into a house with the package. The officers, knowing that drug traffickers commonly open such packages and divide up the drug within about 10 minutes of receiving them, were concerned that both the suspects and the drugs would disappear before they could obtain a warrant to enter Alaimalo’s home.
The officers moved quickly to secure the area, to prevent the suspects from disappearing, as well as the destruction of evidence. They went to Alaimalo’s screen door and announced themselves as “police.” They then entered the home to look around for officer safety, and to ensure the evidence wasn’t being destroyed. In the kitchen, officers found Alaimalo holding a knife, his wife and child with him. Remnants of the drug-containing package were in plain view.
Alaimalo was taken into custody while the officers waited for a search warrant to be issued. With the suspect’s consent, the home was searched, and with his help, officers found the supposed methamphetamine, as well as another drug shipment.
Alaimalo was tried and convicted on six counts of methamphetamine trafficking. He was sentenced to life in prison, plus 360 months. Alaimalo later appealed his conviction, claiming that his lawyer should have argued the officers entered and conducted a search illegally, and therefore no evidence found should have been admitted into trial.
On appeal, Alaimalo’s new attorney argued that the officers had no probable cause to believe the drugs were in the residence, and that, without probable cause, there can be no exigent circumstance. The prosecution linked the probable cause to the fact that the agents themselves had intercepted the package, replaced the drugs, then followed the suspect after he picked up the package to his home.
In this example of exigent circumstances, the appellate court ruled against the defendant, supporting the trial court’s ruling, based on the prior definition of exigent circumstance handed down by the federal court, as quoted above.
Bystanders to Gang Drug Raid Post Misleading Video Crying Illegal Search
In September 2011, a joint taskforce of the Ogden Metro Gang Unit, and the Weber/Morgan Narcotics Strike Force in Utah, knocked on the door to a home where a known gang member lived in his grandmother’s garage. The residence was a known hangout for gang members, and for drug activity. The gang member was also known for possession of a variety of firearms, favoring military-style assault weapons.
When the man’s grandmother answered the door, she allowed police into the home, and told them that her grandson lived in the garage, to which she had no key. Knowing that the gang member was dangerous, and that he could have been in the garage arming himself, officers entered the garage to secure it for safety reasons, as well as to ensure no evidence was being destroyed, then stayed outside the home while they waited for a search warrant. Ultimately, the officers found weapons, a large amount of ammunition, and drug-related items.
Throughout the incident, bystanders stood outside the driveway gate harassing officers, filming themselves on video. The video, which accused police of kicking in the door of an 80-year old woman’s home, showed up on a conspiracy-theorist website, claiming the officers said “they can break into people’s houses without warrants, and it is up to their victims to get lawyers to prove it was unlawful.”
By the simple act of knocking on the door before being invited in to have a discussion with the gang member’s grandmother, it is clear that nobody knocked down any doors. Additionally, the police officers were well within the law to clear the area, including the garage where the gang member lived, for other people, and weapons, to ensure officer safety. They were also within the bounds of the law to remain at the scene while waiting for a search warrant to be delivered. This situation is the very definition of exigent circumstances.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Search Warrant – A court order that authorizes law enforcement officers or agents to search a person or a place for the purpose of obtaining evidence or contraband for use in criminal prosecution.