When Cops Don't Need a Warrant To Crash Through Your Door

"Exigent circumstances" provide a multi-purpose end-run around the Fourth Amendment

SWATU.S. GovernmentThe Fourth Amendment protects us from random invasions of our homes by police, right? We know we're secure in our "persons, houses, papers, and effects" unless the cops demonstrate probable cause to a judge and get a warrant. Except... Except when they don't. The fact of the matter is that police have a lot of leeway to bust your door down and take a look around if they fear that waiting for a warrant could lead to loss of evidence or danger to people. Or lead to something, anyway. That end run around the Fourth Amendment is called "exigent circumstances," and nobody really seems to be sure where it starts and stops. Except for the police. They know it when they see it.

On July 17, a law enforcement task force including federal and local officers barged into the Sarasota, Florida home of Louise Goldsberry after a brief standoff. The officers, looking for a suspected child molester in Goldsberry's apartment complex, insisted that the nurse's frightened reaction to the sight of a stranger pointing a gun through her kitchen window was all the reason they needed to assume their target's presence. "I feel bad for her," U.S. Marshal Matt Wiggins told Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Tom Lyons. "But at the same time, I had to reasonably believe the bad guy was in her house based on what they were doing."

What Goldberry and her boyfriend were doing was cowering in the presence of armed invaders. But that really might be all that it takes.

The problem lies in the definition of exigent circumstances — or, rather, the lack thereof. An unsigned article on the subject in the Alameda County, California, District Attorney's office journal, Point of View explained:

[S]trangely, the courts have been unable to provide officers with a useful definition of the term "exigent circumstances." Probably the most honest definition comes from the Seventh Circuit which said that "exigent circumstances" is merely "legal jargon" for "emergency," explaining that lawyers employ the more grandiose terminology "because our profession disdains plain speech."

The article goes on to explain, "Not only is the definition of the term elusive, the number of situations that are deemed 'exigent' keeps expanding." Where once exigent circumstances required a threat to public safety, they expanded to encompass the potential for a subject to escape, or just to dispose of evidence by, for example, flushing drugs down the toilet. Exigent circumstances now also include a new and looser category of situations involving "community caretaking" which, at least theoretically, justify some kind of immediate action, including kicking in doors without warrants.

Fourth AmendmentU.S. ConstitutionDoes the Supreme Court provide any guidence? Well...some. Said the court in 2006's Brigham City v. Stuart, following on a string of similar rulings, an entry and search is justified if it is "objectively reasonable" under the circumstances, that reasonableness being determined by public concerns outweighing the intrusiveness of police barging in. In that case, police entered a backyard after spotting juveniles drinking beer and and then walked into a private home after seeing a fight in progress through a window. The court ruled the entry and subsequent arrests justified. There's no check list to follow in making that call, leaving the decision to the officers on the scene. As the author of the Point of View article concedes, "Because of these developments, the term 'exigent circumstances' has become a bloated and almost meaningless abstraction."

But in the Sarasota case, the exigent circumstances were created by the police themselves. Louise Goldsberry screamed and cowered because a police officer pointed a gun at her through her own kitchen window. Marshal Wiggins and company used the fact that they'd scared the hell out of Goldsberry as the justification for entering and searching her home. That can't be OK, can it?

As it turns out, it just might be. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of police-created exigencies in the 2010 case of Kentucky v. King, involving police entry into an apartment after they heard movement in response to their knock on the door. The sounds, the officers insisted, could have been made by the suspects destroying evidence. Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, "The exigent circumstances rule applies when the police do not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment."

After the King decision, the FBI posted guidance on its Website about when and how police officers could conduct searches in response to circumstances of their own making.

In holding that the exigent circumstances exception applies as long as the police do not gain entry to premises by means of an actual or threatened violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Court eliminated the confusion inherent in the tests used by the lower courts. The rule announced by the Court clearly allows officers confronted with circumstances, such as those present in King, to take appropriate steps to resolve the emergency situation. However, officers must be mindful of the fact that they cannot demand entry or threaten to break down the door to a home if they do not have independent legal authority for doing so. According to the Court, to do so would constitute an actual or threatened violation of the Fourth Amendment and, thereby, deprive the officers of the ability to rely upon the exigent circumstances exception.

No threat to illegally crash through the door, no foul.

The ScreamPublic DomainPointing a gun through a window might constitute a heart-stopping threat to life and limb, but not necessarily to protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In a world of loosely interpreted reasonableness under the circumstances, it could pass court scrutiny.

Unfortunately, "could" and "might" are likely as close as we can get to knowing if a rush of police officers through a door makes the legal cut, short of judicial scrutiny in a given case. Police on the scene are empowered to use their own judgment as to whether an "emergency," defined ever-more loosely as time goes on, exists that justifies forcing an entry into private property in the absence of a warrant.

Fourth Amendment notwithstanding, we really do live in a world where screaming when an unidentifiable police officer points a gun at you through your window may be all it takes to authorize knocking your door off its hinges and dragging you outside in handcuffs.

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  • The Fatman||

    This Douche Again. This is some sad, sad trolling. It is not even believable. I am really disapoint with the level of trolling here anymore. Where have all the good trolls gone? This post was copy/pasted from another thread. At least try to be original you mouth-breathing idiot. What a sad, sad little shit-stain you must be. Seriously, get out of your Mom's basement and try to get your life together.

  • dinkster||

    Why doesn't the SWAT raid your house for making internet threats? Double standard or something?

  • Mock-star||

    E- to start
    But you did finish strong with some B+ posts.

    I give it a C overall.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Tier 1, are you a killer for the Obama War State? Have you killed children for Bush?

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Walkin' thru the jungle with my cock in my hand,

    I'M the baddest mother-fucker in all the land.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Can you post a link to those naked drawn Japanese people?

  • Free Society||

    you need an entire network of spies to trace an IP address? you can't even troll convincingly. I can trace your IP address with a google search, like every other jackoff on the internet. fear me.

  • hotsy totsy||

    Gorilla warfare with actual gorillas?

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    BOOOOOSHHHH meat.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    thats where i got the idea for my username

  • hotsy totsy||

    If he ever sent a SWAT team of real gorillas to my house, I got a bunch of bananas to throw to them while I make my getaway. Heh heh heh.

  • Paul.||

    and I have over 300 arrests and convictions

    "Judges have handed out over fifteen thousand man years of incarceration based on my investigations."

    I am trained in gorilla warfare

    Wrong, because if you were trained in this kind of warfare, you'd know it was spelled "Geurilla warfare".

    Oh wait, fuck, I got trolled.

  • Paul.||

    Fucking typos. Guerilla warfare. I'm not even trained in it.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    funny how my name was supposed to be a pun

  • Ann N||

    lol this guy is trained in gorilla warfare!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    THIS is gorilla warfare.

  • dinkster||

    I'm still surprised no one linked Space Odyssey.

  • ||

    He didn't say he was trained in
    Australopithecus warfare is why.

  • ||

    You talk like a domestic enemy of the constitution. Is it a coincidence?

  • staceyshea40||

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  • Stormy Dragon||

    or just to dispose of evidence by, for example, flushing drugs down the toilet.

    If the nature of an act is so ephemeral that all evidence it occured can be eliminated in a manner of seconds, perhaps it is not the sort of act that ought to be criminalized to begin with.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Not to mention taht if the drug warriors actually wanted to eliminate drugs and drug dealers as easily as possible, they'd send one cop to the door to announce that the rest of the squad would be there in an hour or two. Let the druggie freak out and flush his drugs.

    Result: fewer drugs, and one druggie who owes somebody else a whole lot of money.

    Problems solved, no fuss, no muss. But no fun either, so that will never happen.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Let's face it, there is basically no check on law enforcement. Until there are regular, personal consequences to bad actor state agents, they will continue to ignore personal liberties and invade private spaces without cause.

    Drugs did this. While the case in question was an accused child molester, it was the drug war that built them up to this level of easy malfeasance.

  • Nazdrakke||

    DrugsPoliticians did this.

  • ||

    ^This

    Until there is a price to pay, elected and unelected agents will continue to ride rough shod over us.

  • Robert||

    Better yet, just search all bldgs., and do nothing but search them. Unless the search terrorizes you, as in the Goldsberry case, there are no damages, and there would be no prosecutions. Since I realized that if you're innocent, you have practically no protection against illegal searches, it occurred to me that laws creating contraband could easily be enforced in this prosecution-less, privacy-less way. Why has that never seemed to occur to the authorities? Why are they so interested in playing prosecution roulette when they could instead simply eliminate both the crime and the guilt?

  • Mickey Rat||

    "What Goldberry and her boyfriend were doing was cowering in the presence of armed invaders."

    Were the boyfriend's boots yellow?

  • Finrod||

    You win the thread.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    +1 merry fellow

    -1000 for making that poem run around and around in my head

  • Paul.||

    You know, from watching old episodes of Lore and Order, and other cop shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s, it seemed like even if cops were in your home searching with a warrant that just because they found contraband, it still might not be admissible because it didn't match the criterion of the search described in the warrant.

    I admit most of my acculturation comes from old episodes of Looney Tunes and Magnum P.I., but bear with me.

    I seem to remember there was rules 'n sech regarding searches.

    Cop comes into the home. They're searching for a long-barreled gun... meaning he's not allowed to open shoe boxes in the closet and look for tiny bags of oregano, because there's no reasonable way a shoe box would hold a long-barreled gun. Is all that out the window now? Or was it ever even in play?

  • PH2050||

    All you need to know is:

    We're Fucked.

  • Tejicano||

    It used to be true that the LEO's could only arrest related to the item specifically named on the warrant although they could confiscate other contriband found under reasonable circumstances.

    I have no idea when judges or whoever started letting the LEO's arrest people for possesion of anything found during a search regardless of what the warrant was for but this does seem to be the case now.

  • Bill||

    That happened once. Now they just say gun.

  • JD the elder||

    In warrants for which I've seen the text, the wording is something like "X, or parts of X, or other evidence of X". Since a part or "other evidence" could be absolutely anything, it's effectively a warrant to search anything and everything.

  • MappRapp||

    lol, welcome to the New Regime!

    www.Anon-Top.tk

  • ||

    We all know its you Pedo-bot

  • ||

    When Cops Don't Need a Warrant To Crash Through Your Door

    All the time. Sure, they may not be able to use any evidence they find if they can't convince a judge they had a good enough reason.

    However, they can pretty much barge in whenever they want, with little or no consequences to themselves, but possible consequences to you, your family, your dog, your belongings, etc.

  • Dave Krueger||

    I'm pretty sure the Fourth Amendment is just a myth. If it really existed, there would be more of an uproar about stuff like this.

    In any case, you people have your panties in a wad over nothing. I mean, don't you remember what they taught you in school? You know, that the "founding fathers" made America a special place with a system of checks and balances so that the government is always subject to powerful restraints? This is exactly the reason no one needs to ever worry about the U.S. becoming totalitarian and stuff.

  • Paul.||

    I'm pretty sure the Fourth Amendment is just a myth. If it really existed, there would be more of an uproar about stuff like this.

    The fourth amendment has always been a bit derided by your average citizen. Because it's the ultimate, "If you have nothing to hide" paradigm.

    People see the fourth amendment as a refuge for criminals to get off on technicalities, so, like describing limited government, it's hard to make a case for it because the benefits for it are seen as indirect- or something intellectual and esoteric.

  • pmains||

    I never understand that. How can people just not get the point of the 4th Amendment? Our country was founded by people who had something to hide from the British government.

  • Paul.||

    Again, when they see a guy with a shoe box full of marijuana get off because the warrant said "long gun" and there was no way a "long gun" would fit into the shoe box, everyone knows and winks at eachother that Dougey McPothead had pot in his house, but we have to pretend it wasn't there because of the fourth amendment.

    It's when Joey McMiddleAmerica gets pulled over by a surly cop who wants to search the vehicle and comes across Mrs. McMiddleAmericas vibrator, and the McMiddleAmerica's "feel violated" that the fourth amendment begins to mean something.

    Luckily, the TSA is helping the McMiddleAmerica's appreciate the 4th amendment.

  • DenverJay||

    naw that's not it. Its just because we are Murika, and that stuff just don't happen here because we're Murkins

  • space junk||

    I will just leave this here for anyone who wants to know the difference between gorilla and guerilla (sometimes spelled guerrilla).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyG0G96UB6k

    This movie was hilarious.

  • Redmanfms||

    This movie was hilarious.

    I agree.

    "Yeah, we hit this reef, big sonofabitch, ran the whole coast."

    "You mean the Great Barrier Reef?"

    "You heard of it huh? Smart lady."

  • space junk||

    I forgot about that one.

    That whole movie was full of that stuff.

    "I have always been a fast healer. And I believe in Jesus."

  • IceTrey||

    The thing is cops have to have reasonable suspicion before there can even be any exigent circumstances. I hate cops as much as anybody but I don't see any problem with the drinking and fighting examples. If they can see a crime from a public space they can bust you on private property. The Sarasota example is ridiculous.

  • glenux||

    "The Fourth Amendment protects us from random invasions of our homes by police, right?"
    If not, that's what the Second Amendment is for.

  • dumb iowan||

    Pretty sure when cops barge into your house and pull you out of bed you lose your right to see a warrant. At least according to the police in my town. Because when you demand to see said warrant they just throw you in the drunk tank for disorderly conduct. After you blow zero's. For an initial noise complaint. Really funny because at 3 am I was home by myself but those are just details. Fuck cops. /End rant.

  • ||

    Exigent circumstances are hardly an "end run around the 4th amendment".

    Contrary to what the article implies, nowhere in the 4th amendment does it say that officers need a warrant to enter a home w/o permission. It says warrants must be issued on probable cause. It doesn't say warrants are necessary to enter a home in all cases. It doesn't address entering a home at all, except to say all searches and seizures must be "reasonable".

    Probably the most common exigencies I have had for entering homes without a warrant AND without consent

    1) DV calls.
    2) dropped 911 calls

    Exigent circumstances are like everything else- they can be trumped up, abused, etc.

    Groovy.

    But that doesn't mean the fundamental principles are wrong.

    If a neighbor calls 911 and they say they hear a woman crying for "help" and "stop hitting me" next door, and they call police and I arrive at the door and get no answer after knocking and upon approach I saw the living room lights turn off (evidencing somebody was still inside), I'm forcing entry. In fact I did (actual case).

    The last time I had to force entry on a dropped 911 call turned out to be a medical emergency and thank god we did force entry.

  • ||

    It's been a very long time since a person physically obstructed my entry into a residence. Iow, it's probably been years since I had to arrest somebody for obstructing my entry due to exigency.

    Of course the collosally stupid, wasteful and harmful war on drugs has seen plenty of exigent entries pursuant to it (as mentioned in the article). That's a fucking travesty, but it's going to be par for the course for as long as the WOD continues.

    RS is one thing justifying exigent entry as a poster notes above. Entries can also be made under the community caretaking doctrine.

    An example of that was the party I went to where I could see a person on the couch who appeared to be unconscious amidst much revelry and I feared overconsumption of alcohol (not RS of a CRIME). When the person at the door refused entry for me to check on the guy AND refused to get somebody to roust him and see if he was OK, then I made entry. Forcefully. Turns out the guy on the couch had a dangerously high BAC and he got the medical attention he needed. The guy at the door who obstructed me got cited for obstruction.

    So yea, there are some example of exigency that don't require RS of a crime (as noted here), but most do.

    The woman calling for help on the dropped 911 call is also not RS of a crime. But under the community caretaking doctrine, if nobody comes to the door when I arrive, it's getting kicked.

  • ||

    There was a dropped 911 call my agency received a few years back where the responding officers saw the lights get turned off as they pulled up (establishing people were still home) and they got no answer upon knocking.

    They asked the Sgt's permission to do a kick (my dept. requires ofc. to request permission "when practicable" iow recognizes that some case are so dynamic the ofc. is not going to stop and take the time to raise the sgt on the radio and get permission, but that it's preferred) and the Sgt. declined to give them permission.

    Turns out a murder was committed related to that 911 call and our homicide unit was out there the next day.

    Oops.

    Since that incident, our general policy is better to err on the side of kick vs. no kick in such situations.

    I've never had one of my forcible or without consent home entries ever get suppressed in court.

  • LivingnDetroit||

    Actually Dunphy, the 4th Amendment does say you need a warrant to come on in. It was part of the bill of rights because British soldiers used to randomly enter people's homes to see if they paid their taxes, but it became a tool of abuse and oppression. The point of the article is that police have found a way around it and have been horribly abusing it -- which is really nothing new. Cops got the conch shell, they're going to abuse it. My suggestion is that whenever a police officer has been found to abuse a citizen's constitutional rights, he or she is immediately fired. Pretty simple and straightforward. Just look at what happened in Boston if you need massive abuse of police powers illegally searching people's homes. Sadly, though, courts are expanding police powers instead of limiting them. Of course, I also believe police should give back all of their GI Joe gear and armored cars but that's a whole other topic.

  • Anders||

    Dunphy (who works for an agency that may or may not exist) cares little for your talk about the Constitution.

    He will do what is necessary to protect the citizens, regardless.

    And let me also say - Officer Safety.

    Here endeth the lesson, Peons.

  • LivingnDetroit||

    So true - with recent court rulings that police are not bound to protect us, and example after example that they no longer serve us, maybe they are not nearly as important as they would like us to think. Maybe we should get rid of them

  • DenverJay||

    wrong dumbass "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." says you gotta have a warrant to enter my home

  • Troglodyte Rex||

    "But at the same time, I had to reasonably believe the bad guy was in her house based on what they were doing."

    What is not being reported is that he got his information from Lenny the Unicorn. I can reasonably believe Lyons was eating rainbow sherbet flavored Unicorn shit because of his idiocy,but that doesn't make it true.

  • godzleaf||

    I have to admit, there were some hilarious posts in this thread. Particularly so in the beginning. Plus I learned a new word (ephemeral), lol. Being a retired police officer I could probably have made a few cogent posts on the article but frankly posters pretty much already covered pretty much what I would have said. Thank you for the entertainment though fellow Reason participants! I needed a good laugh.

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