Exigent Circumstances Search

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Although the Supreme Court has denounced warrantless searches as "per se unreasonable under the fourth amendment, " it has recognized "a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions" to this rule based on exigent circumstances. A SEARCH WARRANT, which in ordinary circumstances provides constitutional reasonableness for a search, may be dispensed with if the delay involved in obtaining the warrant might defeat the purpose of the search. In fact, far more searches are made without warrants than with them. The warrantless search is "exceptional" only in the sense that exceptional (that is, exigent) circumstances are needed to justify it.

Five types of warrantless searches have thus far received the Court's sanction. In weeks v. united states (1914) the Court upheld search incident to arrest of a person—and, in later cases, of the area under the arrestee's control—in order to disarm him and prevent the destruction of evidence. The search of an automobile on the road is constitutional when there is probable cause to believe the automobile is transporting contraband. As the Court said in carroll v. united states (1925), to delay the automobile search is to risk the escape of driver and vehicle. "Hot pursuit" of a suspected felon into a building was held reasonable in warden v. hayden (1967). Delaying to obtain a warrant might endanger the lives of the pursuing officers and others. Such a search may continue until the suspect is apprehended and his weapons are seized. In schmerber v. california (1966) the Court permitted the compulsory taking of blood from an individual to determine whether he was intoxicated while driving when there was probable cause to believe that he was. The exigency in such cases is furnished by the fact that the level of alcohol in the blood diminishes after its intake ceases. In terry v. ohio (1968) the Court upheld the practice of stopping a suspect and frisking his outer clothing to discover concealed weapons, even when probable cause for an arrest is lacking, provided that circumstances entitle an officer to believe that a criminal venture is about to be launched and that his safety or that of others is endangered.

The concept of exigent circumstances is an open one. Indeed, in Mincey v. Arizona (1978) the Court indicated that officers may enter and search without a warrant upon reasonable belief that there is a "need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury.…"

Jacob W. Landynski


Landynski, Jacob W. 1971 The Supreme Court's Search for Fourth Amendment Standards: The Warrantless Search. Connecticut Bar Journal 45:2–39.