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

by Ambrosio Rodriguez | Dec 13, 2020 | Search Warrants
Exigent Circumstances: What They Are and How They Allow Police to Search and Seize Without a Warrant

Last Updated on December 13, 2020

Most people assume that police cannot enter their home without permission or a search warrant. However, that is not always the case. There are exceptions to the laws that prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures.

One of the exceptions to the general rule requiring police officers to obtain a search warrant is exigent circumstances.

What Are My Rights to Privacy in My Home?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I §13 of the California Constitution protect a person’s right from unreasonable seizures and searches. The California Constitution states that there must be probable cause for a court to issue a warrant.

Courts have set a strong precedent of protecting a person’s right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable intrusions by law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, decisions made in the heat of the moment can violate a person’s legal rights. In those cases, the state often tries to justify an officer’s actions in conducting an illegal search by claiming there were exigent circumstances.

What Are Exigent Circumstances?

Exigent circumstance is a legal concept that is often used to justify a warrantless search and seizure. Exigent circumstances describe a situation as an emergency that requires immediate action. Circumstances that would justify immediate action include:

  • Preventing imminent danger to life or serious damage to property
  • Stop the escape of a suspect
  • Prevent the destruction of evidence

Courts have found that exigent circumstances apply when prompt police action is required in a situation. The need to act promptly can arise when investigating a crime or making an arrest. The need to act quickly could also arise when rendering aid, even when the situation is unrelated to a crime.

How Do Courts Decide if Exigent Circumstances Existed?

There is not a standard test to determine if exigent circumstances existed in a given situation. The courts view each situation on a case-by-case basis.

A judge reviews all relevant evidence in the case. The judge then decides if the exception of exigent circumstances applies in the case.

It is up to the state to prove that the warrantless search and seizure were performed because of exigent circumstances. It must also prove that the officers had probable cause for the search. If the state cannot prove both elements, the judge may find that the search was illegal.

Suppressing Evidence From a Warrantless Search

A criminal defense attorney arguing that a warrantless search violated the defendant’s legal rights can file a motion to suppress evidence. The motion argues that any evidence seized during a warrantless search is inadmissible. Also, any evidence obtained in connection to the warrantless search could be inadmissible.

When a defendant files a motion to suppress evidence, the burden of proving exigent circumstances falls upon the state. The prosecutor must convince a judge that the police officers’ conduct was justified because of an emergency. The circumstances creating the emergency must fall within one of the categories for exigent circumstances.

Unless the state can prove that exigent circumstances existed which justify the search without a warrant, the judge may throw out the evidence. Without the evidence from the search, the state may not have sufficient proof that a crime was committed.

Fighting Arrests Based on Warrantless Searches

Even if a police officer enters your home without a warrant, the time to fight an arrest based on a warrantless search is not at the time of the arrest. Resisting arrest could result in additional criminal charges. It can also escalate a situation, which could lead to someone being injured or killed.

Even if you are innocent, remain calm and follow instructions given to you by the police officers. Remember, you are not required to answer questions. You have the right to remain silent.

You also have the right to hire a criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer investigates the circumstances related to the warrantless search and your arrest. He researches case laws, statutes, and constitutional laws to determine if the police officers violated your legal rights.

A prosecutor may decide not to proceed with the case once your attorney points out that a warrantless search and seizure violated your constitutional rights. If the prosecutor proceeds with charges, your lawyer files a motion to surpass the evidence. A judge reviews police officers’ conduct to determine if exigent circumstances and probable cause existed for a warrantless search.

If you are arrested after a warrantless search and seizure, it is important to understand your legal rights and the laws that protect your right to privacy. Working with an experienced criminal defense lawyer can be the best way to fight criminal charges based on unreasonable searches.