The Quantum of Suspicion Needed for an Exigent Circumstances Search

For decades, the United States Supreme Court opinions articulating the standard of exigency necessary to trigger the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement have been maddeningly opaque and confusing. Some cases require probable cause, others call for reasonable suspicion, and still, others use undefined and unhelpful terms such as “reasonable to believe” in describing how exigent the situation must be to permit the police to proceed without a warrant. Not surprisingly, the conflicting signals coming from the Supreme Court have led to disagreement in the lower courts.

To resolve this conflict and provide guidance to law enforcement officials and lower court judges, this Article proposes a three-step solution. First, the Court should reaffirm that probable cause to enter is a prerequisite for any exigent circumstances search: probable cause to believe, for example, that a suspect or piece of evidence is presently located on the premises. Second, the Court should clarify that any full search also requires probable cause of exigency: an independent finding of probable cause to believe that taking the time to obtain a warrant would result in some untoward consequence. This Article thus rejects the views expressed by some scholars that the Court already does—or should—allow at least some exigent circumstances searches on a standard lower than probable cause. Third, the Court should retreat from its opinions holding that a police officer’s subjective motivations are irrelevant in the subset of exigent circumstances cases where the entry is purportedly intended to provide emergency aid or further some other nonlaw- enforcement interest. Rather, the Court should recognize that these searches are, in essence, administrative inspections and therefore should demand proof that the primary purpose of the entry was actually to provide assistance, rather than to investigate a crime or conduct a pretextual search for evidence.