Exigent circumstances refer to times when a law enforcement officer can make a warrantless search or seizure. Because a warrantless search potentially violates the Fourth Amendment, which otherwise protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, exigent circumstances only exist when an officer has probable cause and no time to obtain a search warrant. In other words, exigent circumstances exist in what would usually be considered emergency situations. Although these situations often refer to instances where a person's safety is potentially in jeopardy, it can also refer to times when a suspect is about to escape or evidence may be destroyed or removed. Below is a look at the three instances when exigent circumstances are most often said to exist.
The life or safety of a person is in danger
If a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe that a person's life or safety is in danger, then those exigent circumstances would allow the officer to perform a warrantless search of a property. Usually, officers are required to first knock, announce their presence, and be refused entry before they can break into a residence. However, there are circumstances when officers do not need to follow this 'knock and announce' statute. In a hostage situation, for example, it may be necessary for officers to break into a residence without warning in order to take the hostage-taker by surprise. A crime needn't necessarily take place for a warrantless entry of the property to occur. For example, during a fire an officer (or any member of the public) can enter the property in order to save any person believed to be inside.
A suspect is attempting to flee
Exigent circumstances also exist when a suspect is either believed to be armed or in the process of fleeing. For example, if a police officer is pursuing a suspect on foot and that suspect cuts through somebody's private property, the officer would not need a warrant to enter that private property for the sake of apprehending the suspect.
Evidence is about to be destroyed
Finally, an officer can enter private property without a warrant if that officer has probable cause to believe that evidence is about to be removed or destroyed. To determine whether an officer has probable cause, a court will look at whether a reasonable officer at the time of the warrantless entry would have reason to believe that evidence was being destroyed. For example, an officer who knocks on a person's door, announces his or her presence, and then, though the window, sees an individual inside emptying what appear to be illicit substances down the sink's drain would likely have probable cause to believe that evidence was being destroyed. In such circumstances the officer would likely not have time to gain a search warrant in order to seize the evidence.
Exigent circumstances are an important tool for helping officers protect public safety. However, determining when an officer has probable cause for entering a residence without a warrant is often a fraught issue and many criminal defense cases have succeeded by questioning the reasonableness of a warrantless search.