Hot Pursuit and Other Exigent Circumstances: When police don’t need a warrant

Exigent CircumstancesI’ve written previous articles on the need for search or arrest warrants in Pennsylvania and it’s important to understand that all warrantless searches are presumed to be unreasonable and a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment Rights and their rights under Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. There are situations, however, where police may pursue a suspect into their home or property without a warrant.

In these situations, the Commonwealth, through the Assistant District Attorney (ADA), will have to establish, by the preponderance of the evidence, that exigent circumstances existed that prevented the officers from getting a warrant without losing a suspect. Exigent circumstances, however, present an opportunity when you’re a criminal defense attorney to argue that such a situation didn’t exist and the officers needed a warrant to enter your home.

Your criminal defense lawyer can argue this point during a Motion to Suppress Evidence which is based on a violation of your Fourth Amendment Rights. During a Motion to Suppress the officer will testify that the immediacy of the situation prevented him or her from getting a warrant but it’s important that your attorney attack the officer’s belief that there wasn’t time to get a warrant without losing evidence.

For example, a court in Pennsylvania wouldn’t find “hot pursuit” where officers spoke to a suspect, allowed him to leave, and then surrounded the house after obtaining more information about this individual. The exigency of a situation is often terminated when officers break off a pursuit for a period of time and wait for backup. The District Attorney must show that there was an immediate or continuous pursuit of the suspect from the scene of the crime in order to obtain an exception to the warrant requirement.

In addition to exigent circumstances involving hot pursuit there are also situations where law enforcement will claim that they were dealing with a health or safety issue in order to bypass the need for a warrant. In these situations the Commonwealth only has to establish that there is an objectively reasonable basis for believing that a person within a house is in need of immediate aid (medical, safety). The subjective motivation for the officers entering the premises is irrelevant.

For example, officers may answer a house where they smell smoke or see it pouring out of a garage. Officers may also enter a house if they hear gun shots or hear or see the presence of children during what appears to be a domestic violence situation. While the knowledge or presence of firearms on the premises is relevant it does not in and of itself create a safety issue which would bypass the need for a warrant.  So police couldn’t enter a house without a warrant simply because they believe that there’s an illegal gun or drug within the house.

In addition to understanding the concept of exigent circumstances, your criminal defense attorney must understand the requirement for a warrant (probable cause).  Warrants and the lack of warrant are critical issues in any case involving contraband.  For more information on search warrant, please continue to read my monthly newsletter and take a look at the free download section of my website.