Police officers in Missouri and around the country must usually obtain search warrants before they can enter private residences without permission, but the courts have granted an exception to the warrant requirement when the officers involved had exigent circumstances. Examples of exigent circumstances that have been recognized by the courts include pursuing a fleeing suspect, answering a call from an officer or citizen in distress, and taking action to prevent evidence from being destroyed. The courts have also allowed police officers to conduct warrantless searches when they are engaged in activities that protect or serve the community but are not directly related to law enforcement.
The community caretaker exception
The community caretaker exception became part of criminal law in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blood-stained clothing found during the warrantless search of a vehicle was admissible in court. The officer who discovered the clothing was looking for a gun at the time because the vehicle had been driven by a man who identified himself as a police officer. The officer decided to search the vehicle because it was going to be left in an unsecured area where cars had been broken into in the past. The justices ruled that the search was permissible because the police officer was acting as a community caretaker and not an investigator.
The Supreme Court limits the exception
The limits of the community caretaker exception were tested recently in a case involving a Rhode Island man. Police officers entered the man’s house and seized his firearms after learning that he had threatened to end his own life. When the case made its way to the Supreme Court, the justices voted unanimously to overturn a decision to dismiss the man’s lawsuit based on the community caretaker exception. The unanimous ruling makes it clear that the standards for searching a home are stricter than the standards for searching a vehicle.
Fourth Amendment motions to suppress
If you are charged with a crime and the most damaging evidence against you was discovered during a police search, an experienced criminal defense attorney may make a motion to suppress even if the officers involved had a warrant. This is because searches that appear legal could actually be unconstitutional if search warrants are based on questionable probable cause or the officers executing them exceeded limits put into place by the issuing judge.