Thursday, May 13, 2010

Exigent Circumstances

I remember hearing about exigent circumstances during the O.J. Simpson ordeal. There was debate about whether the police had entered Simpson's properly lawfully while they were investigating the double homicide we all remember. This is where the term exigent circumstances popped up.

I didn't know what it meant. But like so many Americans, I tuned into Court TV every evening and pretended I understood the legalities of what was being reported. This was before the dawn of the modern internet. I can only imagine what the blogosphere would have looked like during the O.J. Simpson period. Come to think of it, I am kind of glad there was no friendly internet. That story had enough media attention.

At the time, I was recently out of the military. College wasn't even on my radar yet. But oddly enough, I think I ended up where I am today due to O.J. Simpson, in part. I remember watching the trial. I was impressed by the lawyers on both sides. Clearly, the defense team was more polished and plentiful. But at the time I thought Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark did a good job.

I bought a book a few months ago called Winning at Trial. It came with a DVD. On it are numerous clips of argument from both sides in the Simpson trial. Sadly, Darden and Clark's video was provided as an example of what not to do. There are also transcripts from the Simpson civil trial as well as Timothy McVeigh's criminal trial.

The writer of the book opined both plaintiff's lawyers did excellent jobs. Based on the transcripts, I agree. And they both won. Simpson is broke. McVeigh is dead. Win. Win.

Where was I? Oh...

The term exigent circumstances is often used when discussing the 4th Amendment. Most of you know that police need a warrant to come into your home and search or make an arrest. There are exceptions. Exigent circumstances is one of them.

What is it or what are they? This depends on who you ask. An easy way to think about it is as follows: exigent circumstances are those that exist to allow either a search or seizure without a warrant. Helpful definition I know.

Anytime there is a life at risk, the warrant requirement will probably be excused. Police are allowed to enter a home without a warrant if they reasonably believe someone inside needs emergency medical treatment. Or if there is an immediate threat to an officer's life. Or if the police are in hot pursuit of a suspect.

Exigent circumstances are assessed case by case. The Illinois Supreme Court has listed a number of factors that may be considered, such as 1. the length of time between the alleged offense and the entry into the home, 2. the likelihood of finding the suspect inside, 3. the nature of the crime the suspect is accused of, 4. the chance the suspect might escape, 5. was there an unjustifiable delay where police could have obtained a warrant, 6. whether the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed, and 7. was the police entry made peacefully.

No one factor is supposed to be given greater weight than the others. Also, these are not the only factors a judge may consider. The judge is supposed to consider these factors and any other that may be relevant. Upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances, a balancing test is done. Then, the judge rules.

Yesterday I had a judge rule against my client. There was a dispute about whether the police were invited into the home. To the judge's credit, he didn't make a credibility determination in his ruling. Instead he went through an exigent circumstances analysis and denied my motion.

If you're wondering why I wrote "to the judge's credit", here's why. If the judge rules my client consented to the police entering, I have no where legally to go with that. Neither will a reviewing court. That is a question of fact. Once it's decided, it's basically done.

However, by deciding the way he did, the ruling became a matter of law, not fact. Matters of law are always ripe for argument and easier to appeal. The judge gave me room to file a motion to reconsider his ruling. He probably wasn't thinking "oh gee, I want another motion from Mr. Schantz in this case so I can hear him argue some more. Let me leave the door open a little..."

I know he wasn't thinking that.

Now I get to write that motion, cite case law, and in a strongly persuasive manner, respectfully suggest the judge was wrong.


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