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What Are Exigent Circumstances?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 15, 2024

The Constitution's Fourth Amendment protects individuals against "unreasonable searches and seizures" by requiring law enforcement and investigators to obtain a valid warrant first—and then they must show probable cause to obtain the warrant. 

However, over time, case law has provided many exceptions to this rule—one of which is the concept of "exigent circumstances," which call for immediate entry

Exigent Circumstances
Exigent circumstances are situations that require immediate action by police without a warrant.

In California, as in other states, law enforcement frequently cites exigent circumstances as a valid reason to conduct a warrantless search. 

However, what constitutes "exigent circumstances" is unclear and may vary from case to case. This can lead to potential overreach by law enforcement and a violation of constitutional rights. 

Simply put, exigent circumstances require swift or immediate action, usually by law enforcement or federal agents. This can be an exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement that police officers have a valid warrant before conducting a search and seizure.

Courts typically say that exigent circumstances are present if a reasonable person would believe that quick action was necessary so that police could prevent bodily harm to somebody, destruction of property or evidence, or the escape of a suspect.

Exigent circumstances are defined as "circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry, or other relevant prompt action, 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."

Because of the ambiguity involved, a skilled criminal defense attorney often focuses on the so-called exigent circumstances to argue for suppressing any evidence obtained from a warrantless search.

Understanding Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances refer to situations where law enforcement officers reasonably believe that immediate action is necessary due to an urgent situation, rendering the delay in securing a warrant impracticable or dangerous. 

Warrantless Search

Exigent circumstances are exceptions to the general requirement of a warrant under the Fourth Amendment searches and seizures.  

Courts will typically examine the time when the officer makes the warrantless search or seizure to evaluate whether, at that point in time, a reasonable officer at the scene would believe it urgent to act and impractical to secure a warrant.

Courts might also consider whether the facts suggested that the suspect was armed and planning to escape, whether a reasonable police officer would believe their safety was threatened, and whether there was a serious crime involved.

Exigent circumstances could also occur when law enforcement is in hot pursuit of a suspect who is possibly involved in criminal activities and in the process of fleeing. The most common reasons an officer will cite exigent circumstances include:

  • Preventing the imminent destruction of evidence,
  • Preventing the suspect's escape, or
  • Preventing bodily harm or wanton destruction of property. 

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Law enforcement officers hear screams from inside a residence, indicating a possible ongoing assault. They enter the home without a warrant to limit injury to or prevent the death of the person screaming.

EXAMPLE 2: Police, while in hot pursuit of a suspect believed to have illegal substances, observe the suspect running into a house. They enter the house without a warrant to prevent the suspect from flushing the drugs down the toilet.

EXAMPLE 3: Officers receive a tip about a suspect involved in a recent robbery hiding in a specific location. If there's an imminent risk of the suspect fleeing, officers may enter the premises without a warrant to ensure capture.

The Ambiguity of Exigent Circumstances

In California, the legal framework acknowledges exigent circumstances as a legitimate basis for bypassing the traditional warrant requirement. However, despite its clear importance, exigent circumstances are also fraught with vagueness

Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures

What constitutes an "immediate action" or an "emergency" is not always clear-cut, leaving considerable room for interpretation. Officers must sometimes make split-second decisions based on the information available to them at the moment. 

While this flexibility is necessary for effective policing, it also opens the door to potential misuse or misinterpretation of the law. Officers might cite exigent circumstances where the urgency or necessity may not be justifiable.

Law enforcement can misinterpret or wrongfully cite exigent circumstances to violate individuals' constitutional rights. Using the pretext of exigent circumstances for entry without a warrant in scenarios lacking genuine urgency undermines the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

If there were not, in fact, exigent circumstances that justified a speedy entry, then the resulting evidence is obtained unlawfully and should legally not be admissible at trial.

What are the Common Defense Strategies?

Given the potential for misuse and the inherent ambiguity surrounding exigent circumstances, California criminal defense lawyers often find fertile ground to challenge the legality of warrantless searches and seizures.

In defending a client accused of a crime where exigent circumstances are cited as the basis for a warrantless search or arrest, a defense lawyer can explore several avenues, including:

  • Challenging the Existence of Exigent Circumstances: The defense can argue that the situation did not meet the legal criteria for exigent circumstances, either due to a lack of immediate danger, no imminent risk of evidence destruction, or no credible threat of the suspect's escape.
  • Examining the Reasonableness of Police Action: Even if exigent circumstances existed, the defense might challenge whether the officers' actions were reasonable and proportional to the situation.
  • Highlighting Alternative Measures: Demonstrating that law enforcement had viable alternatives to a warrantless search or arrest can further undermine the justification of exigent circumstances.

The ability to challenge the legitimacy of exigent circumstances is often a critical element in a criminal defense case. An experienced lawyer can review the facts of your case and determine whether law enforcement had valid reasons for conducting a warrantless search or arrest. 

If the attorney can demonstrate that officers or investigators did not have a reasonable expectation of urgency, they can refute the claim of exigent circumstances. 

If so, it follows that the search and seizure violated your Fourth Amendment rights, and any evidence obtained through that search must be suppressed and excluded from the trial. 

The charges may even be dismissed if the evidence obtained is critical to the prosecution's case. Contact our law firm, Eisner Gorin LLP, located in Los Angeles, CA, for more information.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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