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Searching Without A Warrant: Exigent Circumstances

There is a great deal of attention focused on these matters recently: the police and civil rights. Specifically, when can the police enter your home without a warrant? Under the Fourth Amendment and the Oklahoma Constitution, every search made without a warrant is per se unreasonable, unless its circumstances bring it within one of the few well-defined exceptions of the warrant requirement. Exceptions to the warrant requirement are generally grounded in necessity. In other words, the circumstances giving rise to the applicable exception must be such that it is not feasible for law enforcement officers to take the time required to secure a search warrant. To delay in these situations would result in dissipation of the evidence, danger to the officers, or escape of the suspect. There are several recognized exceptions:

  • Stop-and-frisk
  • Search incident to a lawful arrest
  • Voluntary consent
  • Exigent circumstances
  • Plain view exception
  • Automobile exception

In this post, we will explore the exception of exigent circumstances to the entry of a residence.  The existence of an emergency, otherwise known as “exigent circumstances,” permits a law enforcement officer to substitute his or her judgment for that of a neutral magistrate to the existence of probable cause to make a search and enter a home. The exigent circumstances doctrine applies when (1) the officer has an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an immediate need to enter to protect themselves others and (2) the conduct of the entry was reasonable.[1] In addition, a court must examine the circumstances “as they would have appeared to prudent, cautious, and trained officers”, not to the specific officer involved.[2] The Supreme Court has recognized several types of exigent circumstances that may justify warrantless entry into a residence, including: the hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, the imminent destruction of evidence, the need to prevent a suspect’s escape, or the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.[3]

In Huntley v. City of Owasso, officers responded to a call from a wife regarding a domestic incident in progress.[4] The wife described the violence that occurred and mentioned her husband had several weapons in the house. Upon arriving the officers yelled for the husband to come outside. He attempted to shut the front door, but the officer stopped the door with his foot and grabbed the husband. The officer pulled the husband through the door and across the front porch. The husband was arrested for domestic violence. The charges were later dropped because the wife was an uncooperative witness. The husband later brought a civil suit alleging, among other claims, a violation of the Fourth Amendment because of the entry to the residence without a warrant. On these facts, the court held the entry into the residence was justified under the exigent circumstances exception due to the risk of danger to the wife and the unknown danger presented by the husband to himself, or others. Specifically, the officers collectively had knowledge of specific facts (the 911 call by the wife) which lead them to objectively believe there was an immediate need to enter the residence and protect themselves, the wife, and others.

In the case cited above, the court concluded the officers had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed and exigent circumstances existed. These two elements permitted the officers to lawfully enter the residence without a warrant. However, each set of facts and circumstances giving rise to the use of the exigent circumstances exception will be unique. If you have questions regarding the validity of a search, contact our experienced Tulsa criminal defense lawyer for a consultation.

[1] United States v. Najar,451 F.3d 710 (10th Cir. 2006).

[2] Roska v. Peterson, 304 F.3d 982 (10th Cir. 2002).

[3] Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006).

[4] Huntley v. City of Owasso, 11-5145 (10th Cir. 2012).

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