Exigent Circumstances

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

In law enforcement, the term “exigent circumstances” refers to situations that demand immediate action and response. These are situations where getting a warrant could lead to potential harm or the loss of crucial evidence (Brigham City v. Stuart, 2006). Exigent circumstances is an exception to the Fourth Amendment, which typically requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizure.

Legal Grounds for Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances typically fall into three broad categories as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

  1. Risk of Physical Harm: This refers to situations where law enforcement officers believe that a person is in immediate danger (Brigham City v. Stuart, 2006). For example, if police hear screams coming from a house, they can enter the house without a warrant under the principle of exigent circumstances.
  2. Imminent Criminal Activity: This category includes scenarios where law enforcement officers have a reasonable belief that criminal activity is about to happen. Immediate action in such cases can prevent a crime from taking place.
  3. Risk of Evidence Destruction: If law enforcement officers have reason to believe that crucial evidence might be destroyed while they are obtaining a warrant, they may act under the doctrine of exigent circumstances (Kentucky v. King, 2011). An example of this could be when police are pursuing a suspect who might flush drugs down the toilet if given time.

The Significance of Exigent Circumstances

The concept of exigent circumstances has a significant impact on both law enforcement practices and individual rights. It provides law enforcement officers with the flexibility they often need in rapidly evolving, high-stakes situations. However, the exigent circumstances exception must be applied carefully to prevent the abuse of power and to uphold the fundamental privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. It is a careful balance, as the courts seek to protect both individual liberties and the needs of effective law enforcement (Brigham City v. Stuart, 2006).

In conclusion, exigent circumstances form an essential part of the law’s response to the dynamic nature of law enforcement and criminal activities. It enables officers to act swiftly and decisively when it’s most crucial, while still adhering to the principles of justice and individual rights.


  • Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006).
  • Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011).
Modification History

File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  07/15/2023

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