NY Court of Appeals Addresses the Scope of the Exigent Circumstances Doctrine
POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
The Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” requires the police to obtain a warrant prior to searching someone’s person, house, papers, or effects for evidence of a crime, subject to certain exceptions that courts have acknowledged. A major exception is that warrantless searches and seizures are constitutionally permissible when required by “exigent circumstances.” While this exception is well recognized, courts are frequently confronted with cases in which the scope of this exception is an issue.
In 2012, New York’s Second Department Appellate Division was confronted with an appeal in People v. Jenkins in which New York City police officers, while on patrol, heard gunshots coming from the rooftop of an apartment building. Upon entering the building, the officers observed a man holding a firearm who then fled into one of the apartments in the building, along with another man. When no occupant of the apartment responded to the officers’ request to open the apartment’s locked door, the officers entered after breaking down the door with a sledgehammer.
The officers’ forcible and warrantless entry into the apartment and seizure of the two men was, given the circumstances observed by the officers, justified under the exigent circumstances exception. At issue in the case was further action by the officers in seizing and searching a silver box in which they found the gun that had been fired, which they had not otherwise been able to find on either of the men or in plain view.
The Second Department, reversing the lower court’s suppression decision, held that the exigent circumstances that justified the officers’ entry into the apartment and seizure of the suspects extended as well to justify the search of the silver box.
In a unanimous opinion issued on October 16, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals reversed. The Court of Appeals noted that by the time the officers seized and searched the silver box, they had already handcuffed the men, so there was no danger that the defendant would destroy or dispose of the gun. Nor was there any urgency for further searches to protect the officers or any of the other occupants of the apartment against harm. Therefore, any search of the silver box would have required a warrant.
- People v. Jenkins, 100 A.D.3d, 954 N.Y.S.2d 183 (App. Div. 2d Dep’t 2012), rev’d, 2014 Slip. Op. No. 148 (N.Y. Oct. 16, 2014).