“Exigent Circumstances, When Can Cops Enter”
CRIMINAL DEFENSE FORUM
By: Mark Eiglarsh
Someone gave "Officer Friendly" a tip that there was "a passed out drug user" on a bed in one of the rooms at the "Heroin Hotel." Officer Friendly immediately drove to the hotel and, with the hotel manager's assistance, entered the hotel room. Upon entering, the officer noticed "Oscar Overdose" lying on the bed. The officer attempted unsuccessfully to get Oscar's attention by shaking and yelling his name. Eventually the officer managed to wake him up. He then performed a search, where the officer found drugs in the bathroom. Subsequently, Oscar was arrested and charged with drug possession. Was the search and subsequent seizure of the contraband lawful?
In the above hypothetical, the state argued that the officer lawfully entered the hotel room pursuant to the "exigent circumstances exception." In Riggs, the Florida Supreme Court defined exigent circumstances as situations which creates a 'grave emergency,' imperativeness for safety, and compelling need for action, as judged by the totality of the circumstances. See Riggs v. State, 918 So. 2d 274, 278–279 (Fla. 2005). In addition, the Court has found that 'where safety is threatened and time is of the essence, 'the need to protect life and to prevent serious bodily injury provides justification for an otherwise invalid entry.' Included in the scope of exigent circumstances are feared medical emergencies, which permit law enforcement to enter and investigate a home or motel room without a warrant, as long as law enforcement does not 'enter with an accompanying intent either to arrest or search. Courts in Florida have found that medical emergencies can include reports of an individual suffering from a drug overdose. See State v. Moses, 480 So. 2d 146 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985). Furthermore, a reasonable belief by law enforcement officers that a medical emergency exists constitutes an exigent circumstance thereby allowing for a warrantless entry into a dwelling. This reasonableness is measured by "the reasonableness of the police as to the existence of an emergency, not the existence of the emergency in fact." Randolph v. State, 463 So. 2d 186, 191 (Fla. 1984).
A presumptively–valid warrantless entry based on exigent circumstances is subject to some limitations. For example, Courts have held that an entry based on an exigency must be limited in scope to its purpose. Accordingly, an officer conducting a search pursuant to the exigency circumstances exception must terminate his search once he has determined that no exigency exists.
Therefore, assuming under the totality of the circumstances Officer Friendly's concern for Oscar's health was actually legitimate, the officer is required to leave Oscar's hotel room once it is confirmed that Oscar is not overdosing. Once Oscar is awake, the alleged exigency dissipated making Officer Friendly's search of the bathroom illegal as it exceeds the scope of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. Pursuant to the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Courts will likely find the officer's seizure of contraband constitute a violation of Oscar's Fourth Amendment right.