Exigent Circumstances versus Your Right To Privacy In Your Own Home: What This Battle Means For Your Civil Rights

We’ve all seen, at least in movies or TV shows, police kicking down doors of homes to conduct a search or arrest the people inside without presenting a search warrant. While it may be entertaining to watch on a screen, it might not be so fun when it’s actually happening to you. Well, it happens more often than you might think, so being aware of the legality of those actions is a good idea. After reviewing hundreds of police cases, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent oversight agency for the New York Police Department, found numerous incidents in which police officers misapplied or misunderstood the legal standards of one of the most invasive law enforcement tactics: entering a home.[1] One such incident involved officers entering and searching the home of a man despite the man denying officers permission to enter, and thereafter making him wait outside in his underwear in the rain. As mentioned above, this type of home invasion happens often.

So, how legal is it? That depends on whether they have “exigent circumstances” to justify their entrance into a home without a warrant.

Without getting into much detail about the search warrant requirement (a likely candidate for a future topic), the basic idea is that people acting at the direction of the government (such as police officers) cannot enter your home without a search warrant signed by a judge. However, there is an exception to that requirement where “exigent circumstances” exist. “Exigent circumstances” are situations in which obtaining a warrant is impracticable due to the exigency (meaning an urgent need/demand, or emergency). The two major requirements are: 1) probable cause to search the home, and 2) some need for exigency or urgency to act without a warrant.[2] These situations include, but are not limited to, police being in “hot pursuit” of a suspect they believe to be in the home, coming to the aid of people who are in danger inside the home, and preventing the destruction of evidence. The idea behind this exception is that in some instances if police take time to obtain the search warrant and announce their presence before executing that warrant, the harm would already be done, the suspect would already have escaped, or the evidence would already be destroyed. But remember, the government’s authority to be inside a home under these circumstances without a warrant runs out as soon as the exigency is resolved.

The warrant requirement safeguards our Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. While created for the well-being of the public interest, this exception to the warrant requirement also endangers that right. If your home is searched without a warrant, make sure your civil rights were not violated by contacting a civil rights lawyer immediately.


— By Ara M. Baghdassarian, Esq., Barnes Law

Ara M. Baghdassarian is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/nyregion/new-york-police-faulted-by-agency-for-unlawful-searches.html?ref=topics

[2] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/exigent_circumstances