Warrantless Entry and Search of a Home Under Exigent Circumstances

Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, individuals are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures that are not accompanied by a warrant or supported by probable cause.

There are a small number of exceptions to the warrant requirement when police can conduct a search and seizure. A 2011 Supreme Court case, Kentucky v. King, explained the limits of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement when officers search a private residence.

In Kentucky v. King, police officers followed a suspected drug dealer to an apartment complex where they smelled marijuana coming from one of the apartment doors. Officers knocked on the door and announced their presence. Officers at the scene testified that when they began knocking they could hear movement within the apartment that sounded like the occupants were destroying evidence. Law enforcement officers kicked the door in and found marijuana and cocaine in plain view during a protective sweep of the apartment.

The Defendant claimed that the warrantless entry and search of the apartment was in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the exigent circumstances exception did not apply because police created the exigency. Essentially, the defendant argued that by loudly knocking on the door, police created a situation where there was a danger of destruction of evidence. The Supreme Court disagreed.

A warrantless search of a private residence is generally considered unreasonable and therefore prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. However, law enforcement officers may enter and search a private home without a warrant if there are exigent circumstances present. Exigent circumstances are present when there is an eminent danger of harm to an individual, a suspect is escaping, or evidence may be destroyed.

Under the “police-created exigency” rule, the exigent circumstances exception does not apply if law enforcement officers “manufactured” or created the exigency. However, lower courts have come up with different tests to determine whether an exigency was created by police officers. The Supreme Court in Kentucky v. King announced the correct test to determine whether the exigency was “police-created.”

Under this ruling, police create an exigency only when they “engage or threaten to engage in conduct violating the Fourth Amendment.” Simply put, the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies even if the police officers‘ actions caused the exigency, as long as the officers were acting lawfully and reasonably.

In this case, police knocked loudly and announced their presence. Neither knocking nor announcing the presence of law enforcement, according to the Court, is in violation of a residence‘s occupants‘ Fourth Amendment rights. According to the majority, police may need to knock forcefully and announce themselves loudly in order to let a residence‘s occupants know that they are at the door. In this case, officers did not enter the apartment or make any demands to enter the apartment or otherwise suggest an eminent search. They entered he residence only once they heard people moving inside and feared that evidence would be destroyed.

Therefore, even when police create a situation where a suspect may destroy evidence by knocking at their door, as long as police are acting reasonably and lawfully, they may enter the residence without a warrant. Of course, the officers must have a legitimate and lawful reason to knock on the door to begin with. Likewise, there must be an exigency meriting a warrantless entry. For this determination, the Supreme Court send the case back to the Kentucky courts.


Related Reading:
4th Amendment and the Plain View Doctrine
Proximity to Alleged Crime Alone Does Not Justify Search & Seizure in New Mexico
Search Warrant for Home Does Not Necessarily Extend to Guest House in New Mexico

Collins & Collins, P.C.
Albuquerque Attorneys

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