Generally, when law enforcement officials conduct a search of a person, their belongings, or their home, the officers need a warrant. However, a few situations exist when the warrant requirement is excused. One such situation allowing police to perform a warrantless search is when exigent circumstances are present. An exigent circumstance is an emergency needing immediate attention, without which law enforcement action could be hindered.
Various types of exigent circumstances exist, including:
- Protecting oneself or others from harm,
- Preventing the destruction of evidence, and
- Pursuing a fleeing suspect.
The warrant exception is in effect only until the emergency has been resolved. Once the situation has been taken care of, police need authorization to conduct a further search.
Understanding the Warrant Requirement
The requirement for police officers to get a warrant before conducting a search is covered in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment provides that individuals should be secure in their persons or home, and law enforcement officials can only conduct reasonable searches and seizures.
Typically, authorities need a warrant for their search or seizure to be considered reasonable. A warrant is issued when a judge determines that probable cause exists to believe that evidence of a crime may be found in the area to be searched.
Exigent circumstances offer an exception to the warrant requirement. If police officers are in an emergency situation that could be frustrated by the time it takes to get a warrant, they could conduct a warrantless search. That said, the circumstances must be so compelling that not obtaining a warrant is justified, and authorities still need probable cause to believe that the situation calls for immediate action.
Three Types of Exigent Circumstances
An exigent circumstance is one in which a reasonable person would believe that immediate action is necessary to protect the integrity of law enforcement operations. Additionally, it would be impractical to get a warrant because the emergency may be over by the time it takes to do so.
Several situations may meet the exigency exception. Three of the most common include:
- To prevent harm to others. Law enforcement officials may enter premises or search a person’s belongings to prevent serious injury befalling themselves or others. For instance, suppose an officer hears someone shouting for help inside a home. Because the officer has reasonable cause to believe that the individual is in danger of harm, they could enter the home to render aid without having a warrant.
- To prevent the destruction of evidence. Police officers do not need a warrant to enter a home or premises if they believe that a third party in the location might destroy evidence. The officer must have reasonable cause to believe that the third party would have removed or destroyed the evidence in the time it would take to obtain a warrant. To illustrate, an officer observes through a window a group of friends snorting a powdery substance. One of the friends sees the officer and shouts, “Cops!” The officer may enter the home without a warrant if they reasonably believe that one of the individuals will flush the substance down the toilet to avoid prosecution.
- To prevent a suspect’s escape. Officers may have grounds to enter a home without a warrant if they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect. Probable cause must exist to believe that the person being chased committed a serious crime.
When exigent circumstances exist, police officers execute warrantless actions until the situation is resolved. To clarify, say the officer was preventing drugs from being flushed down the toilet. The officer can seize the substance and search any person in the room incident to arrest without a warrant. However, once those actions are completed, they cannot continue their search of the room until they have a valid warrant.
Similarly, if an officer enters a home without a warrant to save someone from imminent harm, they may not search the premises for evidence of a crime unless they obtain a warrant. Still, the officer may seize an object, such as drugs or a gun, if it were in plain view and suggested an offense had been committed.
Implications of a Warrantless Search
A person has a constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. If law enforcement officials don’t have a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement does not exist, they violate an individual’s rights. Any evidence they collected may be deemed inadmissible in court, meaning the prosecutor cannot use it to support their arguments.
A criminal defense attorney can review the facts of your case to determine whether law enforcement officials overstepped their authority during the investigation. Your lawyer can file a motion to suppress evidence that was unlawfully obtained, weakening the other side’s case.
If you need assistance with your criminal case in Los Angeles, please contact Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP at (800) 462-7160.