A doctrine that provides that the police may enter the premises where they suspect a crime has been committed without a warrant when delay would endanger their lives or the lives of others and lead to the escape of the alleged perpetrator; also sometimes called fresh pursuit.
Countless crime dramas have portrayed police officers in a high-speed chase barking into their radio that they are "in hot pursuit" of a suspect. This popular image says little about the legal rule of hot pursuit. As established by the U.S. Supreme Court, the rule is an important exception to the freedoms guaranteed by the FOURTH AMENDMENT. That constitutional provision safeguards citizens against excessive police intrusion into their life and property. Its foremost protection is the SEARCH WARRANT, which must be obtained from a judge or magistrate before the police can conduct most searches. Under special circumstances, the rule of hot pursuit gives the police extra powers to enter private property and conduct a search without a warrant. The rule recognizes practical limitations on Fourth Amendment rights in light of the realities of police work, especially in emergencies, but it stops far short of giving the police complete freedom to conduct warrantless searches.
As a powerful deterrent to the abuse of power, the Fourth Amendment is designed to prevent the rise of a police state. The requirement that police officers obtain search warrants prevents ARBITRARY violations of freedom, applying equally to federal and state authority. Yet this freedom is not absolute. In the twentieth century, the Supreme Court has carved out a few exceptions to its protections. These exceptions exist under "exigent circumstances": the emergency like demands of specifically defined situations that call for immediate response by the police, who must have PROBABLE CAUSE to conduct a search. Generally, these are circumstances under which obtaining a search warrant would be impractical—ranging from those requiring officers to frisk suspects for weapons to those requiring officers to stop and search automobiles—as well as when suspects explicitly consent or imply consent to a search.
Hot pursuit is one such exigent circumstance. It usually applies when the police are pursuing a suspected felon into private premises or have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed on private premises. The Supreme Court stated that "'hot pursuit' means some sort of a chase, but it need not be an extended hue and cry 'in and about the public streets'" (United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 96 S. Ct. 2406, 49 L. Ed. 2d 300 ). Hot pursuit also applies when the lives of police officers or others are in danger. Thus, the Court has recognized two specific conditions that justify warrantless searches under the rule of hot pursuit:
the need to circumvent the destruction of evidence, and the need to prevent the loss of life or serious injury.
The Supreme Court enunciated the rule of hot pursuit in 1967, in Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 87 S. Ct. 1642, 18 L. Ed. 2d 782. It had used the term before, but in Warden, it explicitly condoned a certain form of this warrantless search. In this case, police officers pursuing a suspected armed robber were told that he had entered a dwelling moments before their arrival. They entered the dwelling, searched it and seized evidence, and then apprehended the suspect in bed. The man alleged in court that the warrantless search of the premises had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. When the case reached the Supreme Court, it disagreed, justifying the search under exigent circumstances.
Since Warden, lower courts have applied the rule to determine whether police officers acted reasonably or unreasonably when conducting a search without obtaining a search warrant. Other cases have permitted warrantless entry and arrest in hot pursuit under different circumstances: when the police saw a suspect standing in her doorway who retreated inside carrying a package that contained marked money from a drug sting (United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 96 S. Ct. 2406, 49 L. Ed. 2d 300 ); when the police had probable cause to arrest a suspect because he fit the description of an assailant who had threatened others and fled arrest (United States v. Lopez, 989 F.2d 24 (1st Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 872, 114 S. Ct. 201, 126 L. Ed. 2d 158 ); and when a police officer at the threshold of an apartment viewed a narcotics deal taking place inside (United States v. Sewell, 942 F.2d 1209 [7th Cir. 1991]).
Although hot pursuit expands the powers of the police to conduct warrantless searches, it does so under strict circumstances. Its purpose is grounded in practical necessity; it does not give law officers license to ignore constitutional safeguards. Courts make the final determination of whether a warrantless search is permissible, and they will reject misuses of the rule. One improper use of hot pursuit occurred in O'Brien v. City of Grand Rapids, 23 F.3d 990 (6th Cir. 1994). In this case, police officers pursued a suspect to his house, called for backup, surrounded the residence, and ultimately spent six hours in a standoff without seeking a search warrant. The court held that the suspect could not have fled the scene and that the officers had no fear of destruction of evidence or of a threat to safety. Thus, no exigent circumstances authorized their warrantless search.