Question: Is an officer’s warrantless entry into a hotel room justified by exigent circumstances if he believes that evidence will be destroyed?
Quick answer: No, not without actual proof that an exigency exists.
Facts: Officers arrested two men at a charter bus terminal in Omaha, Neb., for smuggling heroin in their shoes. One of the men revealed that they were traveling with a third male who also had heroin in his shoes. A quick investigation led the officers to defendant Carlos Ramirez. That afternoon, officers tracked down Ramirez and two additional men at a local hotel. The hotel clerk identified one of the men with Ramirez and gave officers Ramirez’s room key. They located the room and attempted to enter by swiping the key card, but it didn’t work. They knocked on the door and announced “housekeeping.” One of the men with Ramirez started to open the door but quickly closed it once he saw it was police. The officers used a ram tool to enter the hotel room. Once inside, they secured the suspects and performed a cursory sweep. In plain view, one officer saw two pairs of shoes that matched the men’s shoes from the heroin arrest earlier that day. No one claimed the shoes. The officers eventually searched inside the shoes to find heroin in each pair. Ramirez filed a motion to suppress the heroin based on a Fourth Amendment search violation.
Why the case is important: The appeals court found no exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless entry into the hotel room. A warrantless search is reasonable under certain exceptions, such as exigent circumstances, where police are justified in taking immediate action without a warrant if (1) lives are threatened, (2) a suspect’s escape is imminent, or (3) evidence is about to be destroyed. To know if exigent circumstances exist, courts consider what a reasonable, experienced police officer would believe. Also, when the exigency at issue is the destruction of evidence, officers must show that they had a sufficient basis to believe that someone in the residence would destroy evidence. Here, there was no evidence that Ramirez or the other two men knew that police were following them. The officers could only speculate on that belief. They had no actual proof that evidence was being destroyed in the hotel room, either, because they didn’t hear anything suspicious from inside before trying to unconstitutionally enter with the key card. Even when one of the men shut the door in the officers’ faces, no exigency was created to permit a warrantless entry.
Keep in mind: When peace officers knock on a residence door without a warrant, they have no more rights than a private citizen would have to enter. The occupants inside the residence have the right to ignore the knock and may refuse to speak to you. But if you have a reasonable belief that the occupants are destroying evidence (for example, you can actually hear them rushing around or hear toilets begin to flush), then you can enter the residence without a warrant under the exigent circumstances exception. Otherwise, you’ll need the occupants’ consent or a warrant.
to read the entire opinion.