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Posted on July 14, 2022 in Criminal Defense

Exigent Circumstances: What Are They and How Do They Allow Police to Search and Seize Without a Warrant?

Did you know police officers can enter your home without a search warrant? The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Arizona State Constitution protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, there are exceptions to the general rule that requires law enforcement officers to have a search warrant to enter your home.

Exceptions to the laws prohibiting warrantless searches include:

  • Consent – Police officers may search your home if you willingly give your consent without a search warrant or probable cause.
  • Incident to an Arrest –  An officer may search your home without a warrant if you have been arrested and there is probable cause you committed a crime.
  • Plain View – Officers may seize items if they are in your home and they view an illegal item or evidence of a crime in plain view.
  • Exigent Circumstances – Circumstances that allow police officers to enter a home without a warrant.

Court rulings have sent strong precedents protecting the rights of people to privacy in their homes. However, the above examples carve into the right to privacy. Exigent circumstances are a disputed issue because police officers sometimes abuse the exception to conduct warrantless searches and seizures.

What Are Exigent Circumstances?

An exigent circumstance is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless searches. These circumstances constitute emergencies that require immediate action. In other words, law enforcement officers do not have time to obtain a warrant.

Examples of circumstances that might qualify as exigent circumstances include:

  • Preventing the destruction of evidence of a criminal act
  • Stopping a suspect’s escape (i.e., hot pursuit)
  • Preventing imminent danger to life or serious damage to property

Rendering aid is often cited as a reason for entering a person’s home without a warrant. For example, a police officer hears someone scream or what sounds like a fight or struggle. Preventing the destruction of evidence is another common claim by law enforcement officers for violating a person’s constitutional rights.

Limits to Exigent Circumstances

The facts of the situation determine whether a police officer’s actions rise to the level of exigent circumstances. In a recent case, the United States Supreme Court ruled against police officers in “hot pursuit.”

In Lange vs. California, officers were in pursuit of a suspect. They believed the suspect had committed a misdemeanor crime.

Lange had failed to stop for a police officer just a few seconds from his home. Instead, Lange continued to his home and parked his car in the garage. The police officer entered the garage by preventing the garage door from shutting.

The officer suspected Lange was driving under the influence. He conducted field sobriety tests and placed Lange under arrest.

Lange petitioned the court to suppress the evidence gathered from the “unlawful” entry into his home. The lower courts ruled in favor of the cops, but the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lange.

The Court has ruled in other cases that hot pursuit of the suspect of a felony constituted exigent circumstances to enter a home without a warrant. However, in Lange, the court ruled that chasing a suspect for a misdemeanor crime did not justify a warrantless entry into the suspect’s home by itself.

The court recognized that some misdemeanors could involve dangerous conduct. However, there was no evidence to imply that all misdemeanors justify the warrantless entry into a person’s home.

How Do Courts Decide Exigent Circumstances Cases?

There is no specific standard to determine if circumstances rose to the level of an emergency. Instead, courts determine cases based on the facts of the case.

The prosecution has the burden of proving that exigent circumstances allowed police officers to enter a home without a warrant. The prosecutor must also prove that the police officers had probable cause for a search. Otherwise, the judge may rule in favor of the defendant.

What Happens if a Judge Rules Against the Prosecution in an Exigent Circumstance Case?

Your criminal defense lawyer files a motion to suppress evidence. The motion argues that the police did not have justification for conducting a warrantless search by entering your home. When the defense raises the issue by filing a motion, the prosecution must prove that an emergency existed that fell within the meaning of exigent circumstances.

If the judge does not find exigent circumstances existed, the judge may find the evidence seized during a warrantless search is inadmissible. In other words, the prosecution cannot use the evidence against you as proof that you committed a crime.

Talk to a criminal defense attorney if the police entered your home or conducted a search without a warrant. The lack of exigent circumstances could result in the dismissal of criminal charges.

Contact the Criminal Defense Lawyers at Orent Law Offices In Phoenix To Get Legal Assistance Today

For more information, contact the criminal defense attorney Craig Orent. Give us a call at (480) 656-7301 or visit our law office at 11811 N Tatum Blvd UNIT 3031, Phoenix, AZ 85028. We offer a free case evalution, so get the help you deserve today.

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