When Cops Don't Need a Warrant To Crash Through Your Door

When Cops Don't Need a Warrant To Crash Through Your Door
The Fourth Amendment protects us from random invasions of our homes by police, right? We know we're secure in our "persons, houses, papers, and effects" unless the cops demonstrate probable cause to a judge and get a warrant. Except... Except when they don't. The fact of the matter is that police have a lot of leeway to bust your door down and take a look around if they fear that waiting for a warrant could lead to loss of evidence or danger to people. Or lead to something, anyway. That end run around the Fourth Amendment is called "exigent circumstances," and nobody really seems to be sure where it starts and stops. Except for the police. They know it when they see it.

On July 17, a law enforcement task force including federal and local officers barged into the Sarasota, Florida home of Louise Goldsberry after a brief standoff.

The officers, looking for a suspected child molester in Goldsberry's apartment complex, insisted that the nurse's frightened reaction to the sight of a stranger pointing a gun through her kitchen window was all the reason they needed to assume their target's presence. "I feel bad for her," U.S. Marshal Matt Wiggins told Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Tom Lyons. "But at the same time, I had to reasonably believe the bad guy was in her house based on what they were doing."

What Goldberry and her boyfriend were doing was cowering in the presence of armed invaders. But that really might be all that it takes.
The problem lies in the definition of exigent circumstances — or, rather, the lack thereof. An unsigned article on the subject in the Alameda County, California, District Attorney's office journal, Point of View explained:
[S]trangely, the courts have been unable to provide officers with a useful definition of the term "exigent circumstances." Probably the most honest definition comes from the Seventh Circuit which said that "exigent circumstances" is merely "legal jargon" for "emergency," explaining that lawyers employ the more grandiose terminology "because our profession disdains plain speech."

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