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2.11: Chapter 12 - The Warrant Requirement- Exceptions (Part 4)

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    Warrant Exception: Exigent Circumstances

    The Court has grouped a handful of recurring situations under the umbrella term “exigent circumstances.” This exception allows police to conduct searches without warrants as long as officers have probable cause to believe that one of the approved kinds of unusual situations—that is, exigent circumstances—exists. For all the categories of exigent circumstances, the Court has decided that seeking a warrant would be impossible, or at least impractical. The key categories are: (1) hot pursuit of a fleeing criminal suspect, (2) protection of public safety from immediate threats, and (3) preservation of evidence (that officers have probable cause to believe is subject to seizure and will be found on the premises) from destruction.

    We begin with hot pursuit.

    Exigent Circumstances: Hot Pursuit

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Warden, Maryland Penitentiary v. Bennie Joe Hayden

    Decided May 29, 1967 – 387 U.S. 294

    Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

    We review in this case the validity of the proposition that there is under the Fourth Amendment a “distinction between merely evidentiary materials, on the one hand, which may not be seized either under the authority of a search warrant or during the course of a search incident to arrest, and on the other hand, those objects which may validly be seized including the instrumentalities and means by which a crime is committed, the fruits of crime such as stolen property, weapons by which escape of the person arrested might be effected, and property the possession of which is a crime.”

    A Maryland court sitting without a jury convicted respondent of armed robbery. Items of his clothing, a cap, jacket, and trousers, among other things, were seized during a search of his home, and were admitted in evidence without objection. After unsuccessful state court proceedings, he sought and was denied federal habeas corpus relief in the District Court for Maryland. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. The Court of Appeals held that respondent was correct in his contention that the clothing seized was improperly admitted in evidence because the items had “evidential value only” and therefore were not lawfully subject to seizure. We granted certiorari. We reverse.


    About 8 a.m. on March 17, 1962, an armed robber entered the business premises of the Diamond Cab Company in Baltimore, Maryland. He took some $363 and ran. Two cab drivers in the vicinity, attracted by shouts of “Holdup,” followed the man to 2111 Cocoa Lane. One driver notified the company dispatcher by radio that the man was [Black,] about 5’ 8” tall, wearing a light cap and dark jacket, and that he had entered the house on Cocoa Lane. The dispatcher relayed the information to police who were proceeding to the scene of the robbery. Within minutes, police arrived at the house in a number of patrol cars. An officer knocked and announced their presence. Mrs. Hayden answered, and the officers told her they believed that a robber had entered the house, and asked to search the house. She offered no objection.1

    The officers spread out through the first and second floors and the cellar in search of the robber. Hayden was found in an upstairs bedroom feigning sleep. He was arrested when the officers on the first floor and in the cellar reported that no other man was in the house. Meanwhile an officer was attracted to an adjoining bathroom by the noise of running water, and discovered a shotgun and a pistol in a flush tank; another officer who, according to the District Court, “was searching the cellar for a man or the money” found in a washing machine a jacket and trousers of the type the fleeing man was said to have worn. A clip of ammunition for the pistol and a cap were found under the mattress of Hayden’s bed, and ammunition for the shotgun was found in a bureau drawer in Hayden’s room. All these items of evidence were introduced against respondent at his trial.


    We agree with the Court of Appeals that neither the entry without warrant to search for the robber, nor the search for him without warrant was invalid. Under the circumstances of this case, “the exigencies of the situation made that course imperative.” The police were informed that an armed robbery had taken place, and that the suspect had entered 2111 Cocoa Lane less than five minutes before they reached it. They acted reasonably when they entered the house and began to search for a man of the description they had been given and for weapons which he had used in the robbery or might use against them. The Fourth Amendment does not require police officers to delay in the course of an investigation if to do so would gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others. Speed here was essential, and only a thorough search of the house for persons and weapons could have insured that Hayden was the only man present and that the police had control of all weapons which could be used against them or to effect an escape.

    [T]he seizures occurred prior to or immediately contemporaneous with Hayden’s arrest, as part of an effort to find a suspected felon, armed, within the house into which he had run only minutes before the police arrived. The permissible scope of search must, therefore, at the least, be as broad as may reasonably be necessary to prevent the dangers that the suspect at large in the house may resist or escape.

    It is argued that, while the weapons, ammunition, and cap may have been seized in the course of a search for weapons, the officer who seized the clothing was searching neither for the suspect nor for weapons when he looked into the washing machine in which he found the clothing. But even if we assume, although we do not decide, that the exigent circumstances in this case made lawful a search without warrant only for the suspect or his weapons, it cannot be said on this record that the officer who found the clothes in the washing machine was not searching for weapons. He testified that he was searching for the man or the money, but his failure to state explicitly that he was searching for weapons, in the absence of a specific question to that effect, can hardly be accorded controlling weight. He knew that the robber was armed and he did not know that some weapons had been found at the time he opened the machine. In these circumstances the inference that he was in fact also looking for weapons is fully justified.


    We come, then, to the question whether, even though the search was lawful, the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that the seizure and introduction of the items of clothing violated the Fourth Amendment because they are “mere evidence.” The distinction made by some of our cases between seizure of items of evidential value only and seizure of instrumentalities, fruits, or contraband has been criticized by courts and commentators. The Court of Appeals, however, felt “obligated to adhere to it.” We today reject the distinction as based on premises no longer accepted as rules governing the application of the Fourth Amendment.

    Nothing in the language of the Fourth Amendment supports the distinction between “mere evidence” and instrumentalities, fruits of crime, or contraband. Privacy is disturbed no more by a search directed to a purely evidentiary object than it is by a search directed to an instrumentality, fruit, or contraband. A magistrate can intervene in both situations, and the requirements of probable cause and specificity can be preserved intact. Moreover, nothing in the nature of property seized as evidence renders it more private than property seized, for example, as an instrumentality; quite the opposite may be true. Indeed, the distinction is wholly irrational, since, depending on the circumstances, the same “papers and effects” may be “mere evidence” in one case and “instrumentality” in another.

    The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Hot pursuit allows officers to follow a fleeing felon into a house. The Court has explained that “‘hot pursuit’ means some sort of a chase, but it need not be an extended hue and cry ‘in and about (the) public streets.’” United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976).

    After entering a home in hot pursuit, police may look around to protect themselves, find the suspect, find weapons, etc. The Court in Hayden even allows an officer to search a washing machine around the time the suspect was caught elsewhere. Consider the following scenario:

    Police have probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor. The suspect flees, and police give chase. If the suspect enters a home, may police follow? Why or why not? See Lange v. California, 141 S. Ct. 2011 (2021), in which the Court declined to extend the exception to all fleeing misdemeananor suspects. The Court left open the possibility that some misdemeanants might be covered. The crime at issue in Lange was failing to comply with a police signal.

    In addition to its appearance in criminal procedure law, “hot pursuit” is a term of art in international law. A “backgrounder” published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) describes the doctrine as follows: “The doctrine generally pertains to the law of the seas and the ability of one state’s navy to pursue a foreign ship that has violated laws and regulations in its territorial waters (twelve nautical miles from shore), even if the ship flees to the high seas.” Quoting Professor Michael P. Scharf, the CFR document explained further: “It means you are literally and temporally in pursuit and following the tail of a fugitive. … [A state] is allowed to temporarily violate borders to make an apprehension under those circumstances.”

    Students interested in further information can review the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which covers hot pursuit in Article 111, along with the 1958 Convention on the High Seas, which covers the doctrine in Article 23. Students will notice similarities among the international law doctrine and our domestic criminal procedure rule. Under each, state agents are permitted to briefly enter otherwise prohibited areas for law enforcement purposes. On the other hand, application of “hot pursuit” on land (for example, entering a foreign country to capture or kill a wanted terrorist) is disputed in international law.

    In the next case, the Court considers whether a “routine felony arrest” constitutes exigent circumstances and accordingly allows warrantless entry of a home in which police have probable cause to believe the felony suspect will be found. Students should consider that even in the Bronx in 1970—the location and year of the search at issue—the crime rate was not so high that arresting a man suspected of murdering someone two days earlier during an armed robbery had become “routine.” What then made this scenario different from “hot pursuit” and other sorts of exigent circumstances in the eyes of the Justices?

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Theodore Payton v. New York

    Decided April 15, 1980 – 445 U.S. 573

    Mr. Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    These appeals challenge the constitutionality of New York statutes that authorize police officers to enter a private residence without a warrant and with force, if necessary, to make a routine felony arrest.


    On January 14, 1970, after two days of intensive investigation, New York detectives had assembled evidence sufficient to establish probable cause to believe that Theodore Payton had murdered the manager of a gas station two days earlier. At about 7:30 a.m. on January 15, six officers went to Payton’s apartment in the Bronx, intending to arrest him. They had not obtained a warrant. Although light and music emanated from the apartment, there was no response to their knock on the metal door. They summoned emergency assistance and, about 30 minutes later, used crowbars to break open the door and enter the apartment. No one was there. In plain view, however, was a .30-caliber shell casing that was seized and later admitted into evidence at Payton’s murder trial.

    In due course Payton surrendered to the police, was indicted for murder, and moved to suppress the evidence taken from his apartment. The trial judge held that the warrantless and forcible entry was authorized by the New York Code of Criminal Procedure, and that the evidence in plain view was properly seized. He found that exigent circumstances justified the officers’ failure to announce their purpose before entering the apartment as required by the statute. He had no occasion, however, to decide whether those circumstances also would have justified the failure to obtain a warrant, because he concluded that the warrantless entry was adequately supported by the statute without regard to the circumstances. The Appellate Division, First Department, summarily affirmed. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction[] of [] Payton.

    Before addressing the narrow question presented by these appeals, we put to one side other related problems that are not presented today. Although it is arguable that the warrantless entry to effect Payton’s arrest might have been justified by exigent circumstances, none of the New York courts relied on any such justification. The Court of Appeals majority treated [] Payton’s [] case[] as involving [a] routine arrest in which there was ample time to obtain a warrant, and we will do the same. Accordingly, we have no occasion to consider the sort of emergency or dangerous situation, described in our cases as “exigent circumstances,” that would justify a warrantless entry into a home for the purpose of either arrest or search.

    Nor do these cases raise any question concerning the authority of the police, without either a search or arrest warrant, to enter a third party’s home to arrest a suspect. The police broke into Payton’s apartment intending to arrest Payton. We also note that it [is not] argued that the police lacked probable cause to believe that [Payton] was at home when they entered. Finally, we are dealing with [an] entr[y] into [a] home[] made without the consent of any occupant.


    It is familiar history that indiscriminate searches and seizures conducted under the authority of “general warrants” were the immediate evils that motivated the framing and adoption of the Fourth Amendment. It is [] perfectly clear that the evil the Amendment was designed to prevent was broader than the abuse of a general warrant. Unreasonable searches or seizures conducted without any warrant at all are condemned by the plain language of the first clause of the Amendment. Almost a century ago the Court stated in resounding terms that the principles reflected in the Amendment “reached farther than the concrete form” of the specific cases that gave it birth, and “apply to all invasions on the part of the government and its employees of the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.”

    The simple language of the Amendment applies equally to seizures of persons and to seizures of property. Our analysis in this case may therefore properly commence with rules that have been well established in Fourth Amendment litigation involving tangible items. As the Court reiterated just a few years ago, the “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.” And we have long adhered to the view that the warrant procedure minimizes the danger of needless intrusions of that sort.

    It is a “basic principle of Fourth Amendment law” that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable. Yet it is also well settled that objects such as weapons or contraband found in a public place may be seized by the police without a warrant. The seizure of property in plain view involves no invasion of privacy and is presumptively reasonable, assuming that there is probable cause to associate the property with criminal activity. [T]his distinction has equal force when the seizure of a person is involved. [T]he critical point is that any differences in the intrusiveness of entries to search and entries to arrest are merely ones of degree rather than kind. The two intrusions share this fundamental characteristic: the breach of the entrance to an individual’s home. The Fourth Amendment protects the individual’s privacy in a variety of settings. In none is the zone of privacy more clearly defined than when bounded by the unambiguous physical dimensions of an individual’s home—a zone that finds its roots in clear and specific constitutional terms: “The right of the people to be secure in their … houses … shall not be violated.” That language unequivocally establishes the proposition that “[a]t the very core [of the Fourth Amendment] stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” In terms that apply equally to seizures of property and to seizures of persons, the Fourth Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house. Absent exigent circumstances, that threshold may not reasonably be crossed without a warrant.


    The parties have argued at some length about the practical consequences of a warrant requirement as a precondition to a felony arrest in the home. In the absence of any evidence that effective law enforcement has suffered in those States that already have such a requirement, we are inclined to view such arguments with skepticism. More fundamentally, however, such arguments of policy must give way to a constitutional command that we consider to be unequivocal.

    Finally, we note the State’s suggestion that only a search warrant based on probable cause to believe the suspect is at home at a given time can adequately protect the privacy interests at stake, and since such a warrant requirement is manifestly impractical, there need be no warrant of any kind. We find this ingenious argument unpersuasive. It is true that an arrest warrant requirement may afford less protection than a search warrant requirement, but it will suffice to interpose the magistrate’s determination of probable cause between the zealous officer and the citizen. If there is sufficient evidence of a citizen’s participation in a felony to persuade a judicial officer that his arrest is justified, it is constitutionally reasonable to require him to open his doors to the officers of the law. Thus, for Fourth Amendment purposes, an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within.

    Because no arrest warrant was obtained, the judgments must be reversed and the cases remanded to the New York Court of Appeals for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Mr. Justice WHITE, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Mr. Justice REHNQUIST join, dissenting.

    The Court today holds that absent exigent circumstances officers may never enter a home during the daytime to arrest for a dangerous felony unless they have first obtained a warrant. This hard-and-fast rule, founded on erroneous assumptions concerning the intrusiveness of home arrest entries, finds little or no support in the common law or in the text and history of the Fourth Amendment. I respectfully dissent.

    Today’s decision distorts the historical meaning of the Fourth Amendment, by proclaiming for the first time a rigid warrant requirement for all nonexigent home arrest entries. The history of the Fourth Amendment does not support the rule announced today. At the time that Amendment was adopted the constable possessed broad inherent powers to arrest. The limitations on those powers derived, not from a warrant “requirement,” but from the generally ministerial nature of the constable’s office at common law. Far from restricting the constable’s arrest power, the institution of the warrant was used to expand that authority by giving the constable delegated powers of a superior officer such as a justice of the peace. Hence at the time of the Bill of Rights, the warrant functioned as a powerful tool of law enforcement rather than as a protection for the rights of criminal suspects.

    In fact, it was the abusive use of the warrant power, rather than any excessive zeal in the discharge of peace officers’ inherent authority, that precipitated the Fourth Amendment. That Amendment grew out of colonial opposition to the infamous general warrants known as writs of assistance, which empowered customs officers to search at will, and to break open receptacles or packages, wherever they suspected uncustomed goods to be. The writs did not specify where searches could occur and they remained effective throughout the sovereign’s lifetime. In effect, the writs placed complete discretion in the hands of executing officials. Customs searches of this type were beyond the inherent power of common-law officials and were the subject of court suits when performed by colonial customs agents not acting pursuant to a writ.

    That the Framers were concerned about warrants, and not about the constable’s inherent power to arrest, is also evident from the text and legislative history of the Fourth Amendment. That provision first reaffirms the basic principle of common law, that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ….” The Amendment does not here purport to limit or restrict the peace officer’s inherent power to arrest or search, but rather assumes an existing right against actions in excess of that inherent power and ensures that it remain inviolable. [I]t was not generally considered “unreasonable” at common law for officers to break doors in making warrantless felony arrests. The Amendment’s second clause is directed at the actions of officers taken in their ministerial capacity pursuant to writs of assistance and other warrants. In contrast to the first Clause, the second Clause does purport to alter colonial practice: “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.”

    That the Fourth Amendment was directed towards safeguarding the rights at common law, and restricting the warrant practice which gave officers vast new powers beyond their inherent authority, is evident from the legislative history of that provision. As originally drafted by James Madison, it was directed only at warrants; so deeply ingrained was the basic common-law premise that it was not even expressed:

    “The rights of the people to be secured in their persons[,] their houses, their papers, and their other property, from all unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated by warrants issued without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, or not particularly describing the places to be searched, or the persons or things to be seized.” 1 Annals of Cong. 452 (1789).

    In sum, the background, text, and legislative history of the Fourth Amendment demonstrate that the purpose was to restrict the abuses that had developed with respect to warrants; the Amendment preserved common-law rules of arrest. Because it was not considered generally unreasonable at common law for officers to break doors to effect a warrantless felony arrest, I do not believe that the Fourth Amendment was intended to outlaw the types of police conduct at issue in the present cases.

    Today’s decision rests, in large measure, on the premise that warrantless arrest entries constitute a particularly severe invasion of personal privacy. I do not dispute that the home is generally a very private area or that the common law displayed a special “reverence … for the individual’s right of privacy in his house.” However, the Fourth Amendment is concerned with protecting people, not places, and no talismanic significance is given to the fact that an arrest occurs in the home rather than elsewhere. It is necessary in each case to assess realistically the actual extent of invasion of constitutionally protected privacy. Further, all arrests involve serious intrusions into an individual’s privacy and dignity. Yet we settled in [United States v.] Watson [423 U.S. 411 (1976)], that the intrusiveness of a public arrest is not enough to mandate the obtaining of a warrant. The inquiry in the present case, therefore, is whether the incremental intrusiveness that results from an arrest’s being made in the dwelling is enough to support an inflexible constitutional rule requiring warrants for such arrests whenever exigent circumstances are not present.

    Today’s decision ignores the carefully crafted restrictions on the common-law power of arrest entry and thereby overestimates the dangers inherent in that practice. At common law, absent exigent circumstances, entries to arrest could be made only for felony. Even in cases of felony, the officers were required to announce their presence, demand admission, and be refused entry before they were entitled to break doors. Further, it seems generally accepted that entries could be made only during daylight hours. And, in my view, the officer entering to arrest must have reasonable grounds to believe, not only that the arrestee has committed a crime, but also that the person suspected is present in the house at the time of the entry.

    These four restrictions on home arrests—felony, knock and announce, daytime, and stringent probable cause—constitute powerful and complementary protections for the privacy interests associated with the home. The felony requirement guards against abusive or arbitrary enforcement and ensures that invasions of the home occur only in case of the most serious crimes. The knock-and-announce and daytime requirements protect individuals against the fear, humiliation, and embarrassment of being aroused from their beds in states of partial or complete undress. And these requirements allow the arrestee to surrender at his front door, thereby maintaining his dignity and preventing the officers from entering other rooms of the dwelling. The stringent probable-cause requirement would help ensure against the possibility that the police would enter when the suspect was not home, and, in searching for him, frighten members of the family or ransack parts of the house, seizing items in plain view. In short, these requirements, taken together, permit an individual suspected of a serious crime to surrender at the front door of his dwelling and thereby avoid most of the humiliation and indignity that the Court seems to believe necessarily accompany a house arrest entry.

    While exaggerating the invasion of personal privacy involved in home arrests, the Court fails to account for the danger that its rule will “severely hamper effective law enforcement.” The policeman on his beat must now make subtle discriminations that perplex even judges in their chambers. [P]olice will sometimes delay making an arrest, even after probable cause is established, in order to be sure that they have enough evidence to convict. Then, if they suddenly have to arrest, they run the risk that the subsequent exigency will not excuse their prior failure to obtain a warrant. This problem cannot effectively be cured by obtaining a warrant as soon as probable cause is established because of the chance that the warrant will go stale before the arrest is made.

    Further, police officers will often face the difficult task of deciding whether the circumstances are sufficiently exigent to justify their entry to arrest without a warrant. This is a decision that must be made quickly in the most trying of circumstances. If the officers mistakenly decide that the circumstances are exigent, the arrest will be invalid and any evidence seized incident to the arrest or in plain view will be excluded at trial. On the other hand, if the officers mistakenly determine that exigent circumstances are lacking, they may refrain from making the arrest, thus creating the possibility that a dangerous criminal will escape into the community. The police could reduce the likelihood of escape by staking out all possible exits until the circumstances become clearly exigent or a warrant is obtained. But the costs of such a stakeout seem excessive in an era of rising crime and scarce police resources.

    The uncertainty inherent in the exigent-circumstances determination burdens the judicial system as well. In the case of searches, exigent circumstances are sufficiently unusual that this Court has determined that the benefits of a warrant outweigh the burdens imposed, including the burdens on the judicial system. In contrast, arrests recurringly involve exigent circumstances, and this Court has heretofore held that a warrant can be dispensed with without undue sacrifice in Fourth Amendment values. The situation should be no different with respect to arrests in the home. Under today’s decision, whenever the police have made a warrantless home arrest there will be the possibility of “endless litigation with respect to the existence of exigent circumstances, whether it was practicable to get a warrant, whether the suspect was about to flee, and the like.”

    Our cases establish that the ultimate test under the Fourth Amendment is one of “reasonableness.” I cannot join the Court in declaring unreasonable a practice which has been thought entirely reasonable by so many for so long.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Consider the “routine felony arrest” in other locations. Do the police need a search warrant to enter third party’s home? Suspect’s place of employment? Suspect’s privately-owned business? Suspect’s girlfriend’s home? Suspect’s parent’s home?

    Exigent Circumstances: Public Safety

    The next category of exigent circumstances includes situations in which police believe public safety is at immediate risk. For example, when operators receive a 911 call reporting an ongoing assault, police need not seek a warrant before heading to the crime scene and, if necessary, entering a home. Firefighters and emergency medical personnel also enter buildings without warrants to provide prompt aid. Similarly, officers who hear screams coming from a house or perceive other evidence of imminent danger may have probable cause that justifies warrantless entry. In these situations, police could not effectively “serve and protect” without an exception to the warrant requirement.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Brigham City, Utah v. Charles W. Stuart

    Decided May 22, 2006 – 547 U.S. 398

    Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the [unanimous] Court.

    In this case we consider whether police may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury. We conclude that they may.


    This case arises out of a melee that occurred in a Brigham City, Utah, home in the early morning hours of July 23, 2000. At about 3 a.m., four police officers responded to a call regarding a loud party at a residence. Upon arriving at the house, they heard shouting from inside, and proceeded down the driveway to investigate. There, they observed two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard. They entered the backyard, and saw—through a screen door and windows—an altercation taking place in the kitchen of the home. According to the testimony of one of the officers, four adults were attempting, with some difficulty, to restrain a juvenile. The juvenile eventually “broke free, swung a fist and struck one of the adults in the face.” The officer testified that he observed the victim of the blow spitting blood into a nearby sink. The other adults continued to try to restrain the juvenile, pressing him up against a refrigerator with such force that the refrigerator began moving across the floor. At this point, an officer opened the screen door and announced the officers’ presence. Amid the tumult, nobody noticed. The officer entered the kitchen and again cried out, and as the occupants slowly became aware that the police were on the scene, the altercation ceased.

    The officers subsequently arrested respondents and charged them with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, disorderly conduct, and intoxication. In the trial court, respondents filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained after the officers entered the home, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The court granted the motion, and the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed.

    We granted certiorari in light of differences among state courts and the Courts of Appeals concerning the appropriate Fourth Amendment standard governing warrantless entry by law enforcement in an emergency situation.


    It is a “‘basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.’” Nevertheless, because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is “reasonableness,” the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions. We have held, for example, that law enforcement officers may make a warrantless entry onto private property to fight a fire and investigate its cause, to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence, or to engage in “‘hot pursuit’” of a fleeing suspect. “[W]arrants are generally required to search a person’s home or his person unless ‘the exigencies of the situation’ make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

    One exigency obviating the requirement of a warrant is the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. “‘The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.’” Accordingly, law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.

    Respondents do not take issue with these principles, but instead advance two reasons why the officers’ entry here was unreasonable. First, they argue that the officers were more interested in making arrests than quelling violence. They urge us to consider, in assessing the reasonableness of the entry, whether the officers were “indeed motivated primarily by a desire to save lives and property.” The Utah Supreme Court also considered the officers’ subjective motivations relevant.

    Our cases have repeatedly rejected this approach. An action is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, regardless of the individual officer’s state of mind, “as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify [the] action.” The officer’s subjective motivation is irrelevant. It therefore does not matter here—even if their subjective motives could be so neatly unraveled—whether the officers entered the kitchen to arrest respondents and gather evidence against them or to assist the injured and prevent further violence.

    As respondents note, we have held in the context of programmatic searches conducted without individualized suspicion—such as checkpoints to combat drunk driving or drug trafficking—that “an inquiry into programmatic purpose” is sometimes appropriate. But this inquiry is directed at ensuring that the purpose behind the program is not “ultimately indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control.” It has nothing to do with discerning what is in the mind of the individual officer conducting the search.

    Respondents further contend that their conduct was not serious enough to justify the officers’ intrusion into the home. They rely on Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984), in which we held that “an important factor to be considered when determining whether any exigency exists is the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made.” This contention, too, is misplaced. Welsh involved a warrantless entry by officers to arrest a suspect for driving while intoxicated. There, the “only potential emergency” confronting the officers was the need to preserve evidence (i.e., the suspect’s blood-alcohol level)—an exigency that we held insufficient under the circumstances to justify entry into the suspect’s home. Here, the officers were confronted with ongoing violence occurring within the home. Welsh did not address such a situation.

    We think the officers’ entry here was plainly reasonable under the circumstances. The officers were responding, at 3 o’clock in the morning, to complaints about a loud party. As they approached the house, they could hear from within “an altercation occurring, some kind of a fight.” “It was loud and it was tumultuous.” The officers heard “thumping and crashing” and people yelling “stop, stop” and “get off me.” As the trial court found, “it was obvious that … knocking on the front door” would have been futile. The noise seemed to be coming from the back of the house; after looking in the front window and seeing nothing, the officers proceeded around back to investigate further. They found two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard. From there, they could see that a fracas was taking place inside the kitchen. A juvenile, fists clenched, was being held back by several adults. As the officers watch, he breaks free and strikes one of the adults in the face, sending the adult to the sink spitting blood.

    In these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone “unconscious” or “semi-conscious” or worse before entering. The role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties; an officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided.

    The manner of the officers’ entry was also reasonable. After witnessing the punch, one of the officers opened the screen door and “yelled in police.” When nobody heard him, he stepped into the kitchen and announced himself again. Only then did the tumult subside. The officer’s announcement of his presence was at least equivalent to a knock on the screen door. Indeed, it was probably the only option that had even a chance of rising above the din. Under these circumstances, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment’s knock-and-announce rule. Furthermore, once the announcement was made, the officers were free to enter; it would serve no purpose to require them to stand dumbly at the door awaiting a response while those within brawled on, oblivious to their presence.

    Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Utah, and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    * * *

    In Michigan v. Fisher, the majority (in a brief unsigned opinion, issued without oral argument), held that the law set forth in cases like Brigham City easily justified the warrantless entry at issue. However, while Brigham City was decided by a unanimous Court, the facts of Fisher inspired two Justices to dissent. Regardless of which opinion one finds more persuasive in Fisher, students can use this case to see approximately where different judges will draw the line between exigent circumstances—in which public safety concerns allow warrantless entry—and day-to-day law enforcement scenarios requiring warrants.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Michigan v. Jeremy Fisher

    Dec. 7, 2009 – 558 U.S. 45


    Police officers responded to a complaint of a disturbance near Allen Road in Brownstown, Michigan. Officer Christopher Goolsby later testified that, as he and his partner approached the area, a couple directed them to a residence where a man was “going crazy.” Upon their arrival, the officers found a household in considerable chaos: a pickup truck in the driveway with its front smashed, damaged fenceposts along the side of the property, and three broken house windows, the glass still on the ground outside. The officers also noticed blood on the hood of the pickup and on clothes inside of it, as well as on one of the doors to the house. (It is disputed whether they noticed this immediately upon reaching the house, but undisputed that they noticed it before the allegedly unconstitutional entry.) Through a window, the officers could see respondent, Jeremy Fisher, inside the house, screaming and throwing things. The back door was locked, and a couch had been placed to block the front door.

    The officers knocked, but Fisher refused to answer. They saw that Fisher had a cut on his hand, and they asked him whether he needed medical attention. Fisher ignored these questions and demanded, with accompanying profanity, that the officers go to get a search warrant. Officer Goolsby then pushed the front door partway open and ventured into the house. Through the window of the open door he saw Fisher pointing a long gun at him. Officer Goolsby withdrew.

    Fisher was charged under Michigan law with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. The trial court concluded that Officer Goolsby violated the Fourth Amendment when he entered Fisher’s house, and granted Fisher’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result—that is, Officer Goolsby’s statement that Fisher pointed a rifle at him. The Michigan Court of Appeals initially remanded for an evidentiary hearing, after which the trial court reinstated its order. The Court of Appeals then affirmed. Because the decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals is indeed contrary to our Fourth Amendment case law, particularly Brigham City v. Stuart, we grant the State’s petition for certiorari and reverse.

    “[T]he ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment,” we have often said, “is ‘reasonableness.’” Therefore, although “searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable,” that presumption can be overcome. For example, “the exigencies of the situation [may] make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable.”

    Brigham City identified one such exigency: “the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.” Thus, law enforcement officers “may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” This “emergency aid exception” does not depend on the officers’ subjective intent or the seriousness of any crime they are investigating when the emergency arises. It requires only “an objectively reasonable basis for believing” that “a person within [the house] is in need of immediate aid.”

    A straightforward application of the emergency aid exception, as in Brigham City, dictates that the officer’s entry was reasonable. Just as in Brigham City, the police officers here were responding to a report of a disturbance. Just as in Brigham City, when they arrived on the scene they encountered a tumultuous situation in the house—and here they also found signs of a recent injury, perhaps from a car accident, outside. And just as in Brigham City, the officers could see violent behavior inside. Although Officer Goolsby and his partner did not see punches thrown, as did the officers in Brigham City, they did see Fisher screaming and throwing things. It would be objectively reasonable to believe that Fisher’s projectiles might have a human target (perhaps a spouse or a child), or that Fisher would hurt himself in the course of his rage. In short, we find it as plain here as we did in Brigham City that the officer’s entry was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

    The Michigan Court of Appeals, however, thought the situation “did not rise to a level of emergency justifying the warrantless intrusion into a residence.” Although the Court of Appeals conceded that “there was evidence an injured person was on the premises,” it found it significant that “the mere drops of blood did not signal a likely serious, life-threatening injury.” The court added that the cut Officer Goolsby observed on Fisher’s hand “likely explained the trail of blood” and that Fisher “was very much on his feet and apparently able to see to his own needs.”

    Even a casual review of Brigham City reveals the flaw in this reasoning. Officers do not need ironclad proof of “a likely serious, life-threatening” injury to invoke the emergency aid exception. The only injury police could confirm in Brigham City was the bloody lip they saw the juvenile inflict upon the adult. Fisher argues that the officers here could not have been motivated by a perceived need to provide medical assistance, since they never summoned emergency medical personnel. This would have no bearing, of course, upon their need to ensure that Fisher was not endangering someone else in the house. Moreover, even if the failure to summon medical personnel conclusively established that Goolsby did not subjectively believe, when he entered the house, that Fisher or someone else was seriously injured (which is doubtful), the test, as we have said, is not what Goolsby believed, but whether there was “an objectively reasonable basis for believing” that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger.

    It was error for the Michigan Court of Appeals to replace that objective inquiry into appearances with its hindsight determination that there was in fact no emergency. It does not meet the needs of law enforcement or the demands of public safety to require officers to walk away from a situation like the one they encountered here. Only when an apparent threat has become an actual harm can officers rule out innocuous explanations for ominous circumstances. But “[t]he role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties.” It sufficed to invoke the emergency aid exception that it was reasonable to believe that Fisher had hurt himself (albeit nonfatally) and needed treatment that in his rage he was unable to provide, or that Fisher was about to hurt, or had already hurt, someone else. The Michigan Court of Appeals required more than what the Fourth Amendment demands.

    The petition for certiorari is granted. The judgment of the Michigan Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice SOTOMAYOR joins, dissenting.

    On October 31, 2003, Jeremy Fisher pointed a rifle at Officer Christopher Goolsby when Goolsby attempted to force his way into Fisher’s home without a warrant. Fisher was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a dangerous weapon during the commission of a felony. The charges were dismissed after the trial judge granted a motion to suppress evidence of the assault because it was the product of Goolsby’s unlawful entry. In 2005 the Michigan Court of Appeals held that the trial court had erred because it had decided the suppression motion without conducting a full evidentiary hearing. On remand, the trial court conducted such a hearing and again granted the motion to suppress.

    As a matter of Michigan law it is well settled that police officers may enter a home without a warrant “when they reasonably believe that a person within is in need of immediate aid.” We have stated the rule in the same way under federal law and have explained that a warrantless entry is justified by the “‘need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury.’” The State bears the burden of proof on that factual issue and relied entirely on the testimony of Officer Goolsby in its attempt to carry that burden. Since three years had passed, Goolsby was not sure about certain facts—such as whether Fisher had a cut on his hand—but he did remember that Fisher repeatedly swore at the officers and told them to get a warrant, and that Fisher was screaming and throwing things. Goolsby also testified that he saw “mere drops” of blood outside Fisher’s home and that he did not ask whether anyone else was inside. Goolsby did not testify that he had any reason to believe that anyone else was in the house. Thus, the factual question was whether Goolsby had “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that [Fisher was] seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.”

    After hearing the testimony, the trial judge was “even more convinced” that the entry was unlawful. He noted the issue was “whether or not there was a reasonable basis to [enter the house] or whether [Goolsby] was just acting on some possibilities” and evidently found the record supported the latter rather than the former. He found the police decision to leave the scene and not return for several hours—without resolving any potentially dangerous situation and without calling for medical assistance—inconsistent with a reasonable belief that Fisher was in need of immediate aid. In sum, the one judge who heard Officer Goolsby’s testimony was not persuaded that Goolsby had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that entering Fisher’s home was necessary to avoid serious injury.

    The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the State had not met its burden. Perhaps because one judge dissented, the Michigan Supreme Court initially granted an application for leave to appeal. After considering briefs and oral argument, however, the majority of that Court vacated its earlier order because it was “no longer persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this Court.”

    Today, without having heard Officer Goolsby’s testimony, this Court decides that the trial judge got it wrong. I am not persuaded that he did, but even if we make that assumption, it is hard to see how the Court is justified in micromanaging the day-to-day business of state tribunals making fact-intensive decisions of this kind. We ought not usurp the role of the factfinder when faced with a close question of the reasonableness of an officer’s actions, particularly in a case tried in a state court. I therefore respectfully dissent.

    * * *

    In Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021), the Court considered whether after a dangerous (possibly suicidal) man was removed from his home, police could confiscate firearms from the home pursuant to a “community caretaking function.” The Court had held in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U. S. 433 (1973) that the community caretaking function allowed police to search an impounded vehicle for an unsecured firearm. The Court held that entering the home and seizing the weapons was not justified by the exigent circumstances exception. The Court reasoned that prior caselaw about car searches did not apply to homes, which enjoy greater protection. Then, the Court distinguished cases such as Brigham City and Fisher, in which police perceived immediate dangers and couly not sensibly take time to obtain warrants, from the scenario presented.2 The weapons, sitting in an empty house, did not justify a warrantless search of the home. The concurring opinion of Justice Kavanaugh provides further discussion of what scenarios (such as reasonable fear that an old man has fallen inside his house and needs help) would justify warrantless searches of homes.

    Exigent Circumstances: Preserving Evidence from Destruction

    Our next category of exigent circumstances includes situations in which police have probable cause to believe (1) that items subject to seizure are in a particular place and (2) that waiting for a warrant would put the evidence at serious risk of destruction. Common scenarios involve suspects who may be about to flush drugs down the toilet, burn documents, or tamper with electronic devices.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Kentucky v. Hollis Deshaun King

    Decided May 16, 2011 – 563 U.S. 452

    Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

    It is well established that “exigent circumstances,” including the need to prevent the destruction of evidence, permit police officers to conduct an otherwise permissible search without first obtaining a warrant. In this case, we consider whether this rule applies when police, by knocking on the door of a residence and announcing their presence, cause the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. The Kentucky Supreme Court held that the exigent circumstances rule does not apply in the case at hand because the police should have foreseen that their conduct would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. We reject this interpretation of the exigent circumstances rule. The conduct of the police prior to their entry into the apartment was entirely lawful. They did not violate the Fourth Amendment or threaten to do so. In such a situation, the exigent circumstances rule applies.


    This case concerns the search of an apartment in Lexington, Kentucky. Police officers set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine outside an apartment complex. Undercover Officer Gibbons watched the deal take place from an unmarked car in a nearby parking lot. After the deal occurred, Gibbons radioed uniformed officers to move in on the suspect. He told the officers that the suspect was moving quickly toward the breezeway of an apartment building, and he urged them to “hurry up and get there” before the suspect entered an apartment.

    In response to the radio alert, the uniformed officers drove into the nearby parking lot, left their vehicles, and ran to the breezeway. Just as they entered the breezeway, they heard a door shut and detected a very strong odor of burnt marijuana. At the end of the breezeway, the officers saw two apartments, one on the left and one on the right, and they did not know which apartment the suspect had entered. Gibbons had radioed that the suspect was running into the apartment on the right, but the officers did not hear this statement because they had already left their vehicles. Because they smelled marijuana smoke emanating from the apartment on the left, they approached the door of that apartment.

    Officer Steven Cobb, one of the uniformed officers who approached the door, testified that the officers banged on the left apartment door “as loud as [they] could” and announced, “‘This is the police’” or “‘Police, police, police.’” Cobb said that “[a]s soon as [the officers] started banging on the door,” they “could hear people inside moving,” and “[i]t sounded as [though] things were being moved inside the apartment.” These noises, Cobb testified, led the officers to believe that drug-related evidence was about to be destroyed.

    At that point, the officers announced that they “were going to make entry inside the apartment.” Cobb then kicked in the door, the officers entered the apartment, and they found three people in the front room: respondent Hollis King, respondent’s girlfriend, and a guest who was smoking marijuana. The officers performed a protective sweep of the apartment during which they saw marijuana and powder cocaine in plain view. In a subsequent search, they also discovered crack cocaine, cash, and drug paraphernalia.

    Police eventually entered the apartment on the right. Inside, they found the suspected drug dealer who was the initial target of their investigation.


    In the Fayette County Circuit Court, a grand jury charged respondent with trafficking in marijuana, first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance, and second-degree persistent felony offender status. Respondent filed a motion to suppress the evidence from the warrantless search, but the Circuit Court denied the motion. The court sentenced respondent to 11 years’ imprisonment. The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of Kentucky reversed.


    Although the text of the Fourth Amendment does not specify when a search warrant must be obtained, this Court has inferred that a warrant must generally be secured. “It is a ‘basic principle of Fourth Amendment law,’” we have often said, “‘that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.’” But we have also recognized that this presumption may be overcome in some circumstances because “[t]he ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” Accordingly, the warrant requirement is subject to certain reasonable exceptions.

    One well-recognized exception applies when “‘the exigencies of the situation’ make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” This Court has identified several exigencies that may justify a warrantless search of a home. [W]hat is relevant here—the need “to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence” has long been recognized as a sufficient justification for a warrantless search.


    Over the years, lower courts have developed an exception to the exigent circumstances rule, the so-called “police-created exigency” doctrine. Under this doctrine, police may not rely on the need to prevent destruction of evidence when that exigency was “created” or “manufactured” by the conduct of the police.

    In applying this exception for the “creation” or “manufacturing” of an exigency by the police, courts require something more than mere proof that fear of detection by the police caused the destruction of evidence. An additional showing is obviously needed because, as the Eighth Circuit has recognized, “in some sense the police always create the exigent circumstances.” That is to say, in the vast majority of cases in which evidence is destroyed by persons who are engaged in illegal conduct, the reason for the destruction is fear that the evidence will fall into the hands of law enforcement. Destruction of evidence issues probably occur most frequently in drug cases because drugs may be easily destroyed by flushing them down a toilet or rinsing them down a drain. Persons in possession of valuable drugs are unlikely to destroy them unless they fear discovery by the police. Consequently, a rule that precludes the police from making a warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence whenever their conduct causes the exigency would unreasonably shrink the reach of this well-established exception to the warrant requirement.

    Presumably for the purpose of avoiding such a result, the lower courts have held that the police-created exigency doctrine requires more than simple causation, but the lower courts have not agreed on the test to be applied.


    Despite the welter of tests devised by the lower courts, the answer to the question presented in this case follows directly and clearly from the principle that permits warrantless searches in the first place. As previously noted, warrantless searches are allowed when the circumstances make it reasonable, within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, to dispense with the warrant requirement. Therefore, the answer to the question before us is that the exigent circumstances rule justifies a warrantless search when the conduct of the police preceding the exigency is reasonable in the same sense. Where, as here, the police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment, warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed.

    Some lower courts have adopted a rule that is similar to the one that we recognize today. But others, including the Kentucky Supreme Court, have imposed additional requirements that are unsound and that we now reject.

    Bad faith. Some courts, including the Kentucky Supreme Court, ask whether law enforcement officers “‘deliberately created the exigent circumstances with the bad faith intent to avoid the warrant requirement.’”

    This approach is fundamentally inconsistent with our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. “Our cases have repeatedly rejected” a subjective approach, asking only whether “the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action.” “Indeed, we have never held, outside limited contexts such as an “inventory search or administrative inspection …, that an officer’s motive invalidates objectively justifiable behavior under the Fourth Amendment.”

    The reasons for looking to objective factors, rather than subjective intent, are clear. Legal tests based on reasonableness are generally objective, and this Court has long taken the view that “evenhanded law enforcement is best achieved by the application of objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the subjective state of mind of the officer.”

    Reasonable foreseeability. Some courts, again including the Kentucky Supreme Court, hold that police may not rely on an exigency if “‘it was reasonably foreseeable that the investigative tactics employed by the police would create the exigent circumstances.’” Courts applying this test have invalidated warrantless home searches on the ground that it was reasonably foreseeable that police officers, by knocking on the door and announcing their presence, would lead a drug suspect to destroy evidence.

    Contrary to this reasoning, however, we have rejected the notion that police may seize evidence without a warrant only when they come across the evidence by happenstance. Adoption of a reasonable foreseeability test would also introduce an unacceptable degree of unpredictability. For example, whenever law enforcement officers knock on the door of premises occupied by a person who may be involved in the drug trade, there is some possibility that the occupants may possess drugs and may seek to destroy them. Under a reasonable foreseeability test, it would be necessary to quantify the degree of predictability that must be reached before the police-created exigency doctrine comes into play.

    A simple example illustrates the difficulties that such an approach would produce. Suppose that the officers in the present case did not smell marijuana smoke and thus knew only that there was a 50% chance that the fleeing suspect had entered the apartment on the left rather than the apartment on the right. Under those circumstances, would it have been reasonably foreseeable that the occupants of the apartment on the left would seek to destroy evidence upon learning that the police were at the door? Or suppose that the officers knew only that the suspect had disappeared into one of the apartments on a floor with 3, 5, 10, or even 20 units? If the police chose a door at random and knocked for the purpose of asking the occupants if they knew a person who fit the description of the suspect, would it have been reasonably foreseeable that the occupants would seek to destroy evidence?

    We have noted that “[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” The reasonable foreseeability test would create unacceptable and unwarranted difficulties for law enforcement officers who must make quick decisions in the field, as well as for judges who would be required to determine after the fact whether the destruction of evidence in response to a knock on the door was reasonably foreseeable based on what the officers knew at the time.

    Probable cause and time to secure a warrant. Some courts, in applying the police-created exigency doctrine, fault law enforcement officers if, after acquiring evidence that is sufficient to establish probable cause to search particular premises, the officers do not seek a warrant but instead knock on the door and seek either to speak with an occupant or to obtain consent to search.

    This approach unjustifiably interferes with legitimate law enforcement strategies. There are many entirely proper reasons why police may not want to seek a search warrant as soon as the bare minimum of evidence needed to establish probable cause is acquired.

    Standard or good investigative tactics. Finally, some lower court cases suggest that law enforcement officers may be found to have created or manufactured an exigency if the court concludes that the course of their investigation was “contrary to standard or good law enforcement practices [or to the policies or practices of their jurisdictions].” This approach fails to provide clear guidance for law enforcement officers and authorizes courts to make judgments on matters that are the province of those who are responsible for federal and state law enforcement agencies.

    Respondent argues for a rule that differs from those discussed above, but his rule is also flawed. Respondent contends that law enforcement officers impermissibly create an exigency when they “engage in conduct that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry is imminent and inevitable.” In respondent’s view, relevant factors include the officers’ tone of voice in announcing their presence and the forcefulness of their knocks. But the ability of law enforcement officers to respond to an exigency cannot turn on such subtleties.

    If respondent’s test were adopted, it would be extremely difficult for police officers to know how loudly they may announce their presence or how forcefully they may knock on a door without running afoul of the police-created exigency rule. And in most cases, it would be nearly impossible for a court to determine whether that threshold had been passed. The Fourth Amendment does not require the nebulous and impractical test that respondent proposes.

    For these reasons, we conclude that the exigent circumstances rule applies when the police do not gain entry to premises by means of an actual or threatened violation of the Fourth Amendment. This holding provides ample protection for the privacy rights that the Amendment protects.

    When law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen might do. And whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak. When the police knock on a door but the occupants choose not to respond or to speak, “the investigation will have reached a conspicuously low point,” and the occupants “will have the kind of warning that even the most elaborate security system cannot provide.” And even if an occupant chooses to open the door and speak with the officers, the occupant need not allow the officers to enter the premises and may refuse to answer any questions at any time.

    Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for the warrantless exigent-circumstances search that may ensue.


    We now apply our interpretation of the police-created exigency doctrine to the facts of this case.


    We need not decide whether exigent circumstances existed in this case. Any warrantless entry based on exigent circumstances must, of course, be supported by a genuine exigency. The trial court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals found that there was a real exigency in this case, but the Kentucky Supreme Court expressed doubt on this issue, observing that there was “certainly some question as to whether the sound of persons moving [inside the apartment] was sufficient to establish that evidence was being destroyed.” The Kentucky Supreme Court “assum[ed] for the purpose of argument that exigent circumstances existed,” and it held that the police had impermissibly manufactured the exigency.

    We, too, assume for purposes of argument that an exigency existed. We decide only the question on which the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled and on which we granted certiorari: Under what circumstances do police impermissibly create an exigency? Any question about whether an exigency actually existed is better addressed by the Kentucky Supreme Court on remand.


    In this case, we see no evidence that the officers either violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so prior to the point when they entered the apartment. Officer Cobb testified without contradiction that the officers “banged on the door as loud as [they] could” and announced either “‘Police, police, police’” or “‘This is the police.’” This conduct was entirely consistent with the Fourth Amendment, and we are aware of no other evidence that might show that the officers either violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so (for example, by announcing that they would break down the door if the occupants did not open the door voluntarily).

    Like the court below, we assume for purposes of argument that an exigency existed. Because the officers in this case did not violate or threaten to violate the Fourth Amendment prior to the exigency, we hold that the exigency justified the warrantless search of the apartment.

    The judgment of the Kentucky Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Justice GINSBURG, dissenting.

    The Court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases. In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant. I dissent from the Court’s reduction of the Fourth Amendment’s force.

    This case involves a principal exception to the warrant requirement, the exception applicable in “exigent circumstances.” “[C]arefully delineated,” the exception should govern only in genuine emergency situations. Circumstances qualify as “exigent” when there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury, or danger that evidence will be immediately destroyed, or that a suspect will escape. The question presented: May police, who could pause to gain the approval of a neutral magistrate, dispense with the need to get a warrant by themselves creating exigent circumstances? I would answer no, as did the Kentucky Supreme Court. The urgency must exist, I would rule, when the police come on the scene, not subsequent to their arrival, prompted by their own conduct.

    That heavy burden has not been carried here. There was little risk that drug-related evidence would have been destroyed had the police delayed the search pending a magistrate’s authorization. As the Court recognizes, “[p]ersons in possession of valuable drugs are unlikely to destroy them unless they fear discovery by the police.” Nothing in the record shows that, prior to the knock at the apartment door, the occupants were apprehensive about police proximity.

    In no quarter does the Fourth Amendment apply with greater force than in our homes, our most private space which, for centuries, has been regarded as “‘entitled to special protection.’” Home intrusions, the Court has said, are indeed “the chief evil against which … the Fourth Amendment is directed.” “‘[S]earches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are [therefore] presumptively unreasonable.’” How “secure” do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and, on hearing sounds indicative of things moving, forcibly enter and search for evidence of unlawful activity?

    As above noted, to justify the police activity in this case, Kentucky invoked the once-guarded exception for emergencies “in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant … threaten[s] ‘the destruction of evidence.’” To fit within this exception, “police action literally must be [taken] ‘now or never’ to preserve the evidence of the crime.”

    The existence of a genuine emergency depends not only on the state of necessity at the time of the warrantless search; it depends, first and foremost, on “actions taken by the police preceding the warrantless search.” “[W]asting a clear opportunity to obtain a warrant,” therefore, “disentitles the officer from relying on subsequent exigent circumstances.”

    Under an appropriately reined-in “emergency” or “exigent circumstances” exception, the result in this case should not be in doubt. The target of the investigation’s entry into the building, and the smell of marijuana seeping under the apartment door into the hallway, the Kentucky Supreme Court rightly determined, gave the police “probable cause … sufficient … to obtain a warrant to search the … apartment.” As that court observed, nothing made it impracticable for the police to post officers on the premises while proceeding to obtain a warrant authorizing their entry.

    I [] would not allow an expedient knock to override the warrant requirement. Instead, I would accord that core requirement of the Fourth Amendment full respect. When possible, “a warrant must generally be secured,” the Court acknowledges. There is every reason to conclude that securing a warrant was entirely feasible in this case, and no reason to contract the Fourth Amendment’s dominion.

    * * *

    In our next chapter, we will review limits to the exigent circumstances exception, including one case, Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984), in which the prosecution unsuccessfully raised three different exigent circumstances theories—hot pursuit, safety, and preservation of evidence. We will also examine, more generally, the issue presented by cases in which police desire evidence of the amount of alcohol in a suspect’s blood.