Exigent Circumstances. Government agents may conduct a warrantless search or seizure if (1) probable cause supports the search or seizure and (2) “exigent circumstances” exist. Exigent circumstances include imminent destruction of evidence, a threat to the safety of law enforcement officers or the general public, “hot pursuit” of a suspect by police, or likelihood that a suspect will flee before the officer can obtain a warrant.
Conducting a warrantless search or seizure to preserve evidence is justified if the police reasonably believe that unless they immediately conduct a warrantless search, the evidence is in imminent danger of being removed or destroyed. Because narcotics can be destroyed easily, criminal investigations involving narcotics often result in warrantless searches or seizures based on exigent circumstances. If exigent circumstances do not compel an immediate warrantless search, police may secure a residence to prevent destruction or removal of evidence before obtaining a search warrant.
If police reasonably believe that their safety or the safety of others--including that of a suspect--is threatened, they may enter a dwelling and conduct a full warrantless search. In the course of such a search, police are restricted to places where they reasonably believe inherently dangerous items are present. The police may also search a residence in which a violent crime has occurred if they reasonably believe victims or dangerous persons are present. Other dangers to the public may also constitute exigent circumstances. For example, a burning building or an imminent fire hazard may justify a warrantless entry into that building to extinguish the fire or eliminate the hazard. Officials at the scene of a fire or explosion do not need a warrant to remain in the building for a reasonable time after the fire has been extinguished to investigate the cause, to search for victims, or to prevent further damage. However, once the cause has been established, officials must secure a warrant to conduct a further search for evidence.
Warrantless searches may also be justified by the exigency of hot pursuit if the pursuing officers have probable cause to arrest the fleeing suspect. The Supreme Court has stated that “hot pursuit” means some sort of a chase, but it need not be an extended hue and cry “in and about [the] public streets.” The hot pursuit justification for a search is not valid unless officers make an immediate and continuous pursuit of the suspect from the crime scene. The scope of a search justified by hot pursuit is only as broad as necessary to prevent the suspect from resisting arrest or escaping.
A warrantless entry or arrest may be justified if the police have reason to believe that a suspect will flee before they can obtain a warrant. The permissible scope of such a search is only as broad as necessary to prevent the suspect from resisting arrest or escaping. Beyond the specific examples of exigent circumstances listed above, courts will consider several factors in deciding whether an exigent-circumstances search or seizure was proper. First, courts may consider the gravity of the offense that prompts a search or seizure. Second, police must demonstrate that the search was conducted in a reasonable manner, which requires a showing that a telephone warrant was unavailable or impractical for the searching officers. Third, the police may not engage or threaten to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment to create an exigency and subsequently use that exigency to justify a warrantless search or seizure. However, police generally do not have a duty to alleviate potential exigencies.
In determining whether exigent circumstances justify a warrantless entry, courts examine the totality of circumstances during the period immediately preceding the search.