LOS ANGELES – Exigent circumstances! Two magical words that allow law enforcement authorities warrantless entry into a home, building, business, etc …
But what constitutes an exigency? A home on fire … No brainer! Burglary in progress … Absolutely!
Yet what about the typical call for service involving someone “screaming” inside a specific location? Often times “screams” are difficult to characterize when they filter through multiple layers in the reporting process. There are happy screams, good-natured screams, and joking screams. There are frightening screams, panicked screams, and scared-to-death screams.
When a caller tells police dispatch, “I heard a scream coming from …” the dispatcher tries to distinguish the “type” of “scream” and then relay it to responding officers. At times it is effective, other times, not so much!
The totality of circumstances need to be considered by responding officers to justify or eliminate the exigency. If exigent circumstances exist, a warrantless entry is justified.
At times officers speculate correctly, and inside homes and businesses we find signs of a crime. Other times we simply discover children acting out, or something less than a crime. Either way, cops are on the hook for the subjective decisions made—oftentimes with shaky objective criteria.
This is a serious area of law, because it allows peace officers to temporarily suspend the Fourth Amendment while investigating circumstances, which appears to be exigent. Guess right and you could be a hero. Guess wrong and you could be sued for invading privacy. Worse yet, officer’s can be fired if things really turn out bad.
Two LAPD officers guessed wrong, and find themselves in the unemployment line. Worse yet, a female student from UCLA is dead.
Los Angeles police officers have been fired over the way they responded to an initial call about a woman’s screams at an apartment where a UCLA student was later found dead last year, CBS Los Angeles reports.
Veteran officers Rhoadell Sudduth and Alisha Williams were let go. According to documents obtained by CNN, the officers did not knock on the door or go inside the apartment where a woman was reportedly screaming.
The same apartment was set on fire 30 minutes after the officers left on Sept. 21, 2015.
UCLA student Andrea DelVesco’s charred body was found inside. Two college students have been arrested for her murder and have pleaded not guilty.
These circumstances cannot be judged in the media. There are far too many variables that need to be considered, and are not made public. Further exacerbating the debate is the reality that similar exigent circumstances can yield completely different results.
A woman screaming and yelling for help in one scenario could be a serious crime in progress. In another scenario it might be “loud sex.”
Due diligence needs to be pursued in order to determine if officer’s have an exigency, regardless of the circumstances. It boils down to what is known, when was it known, and were reasonable steps taken to investigate and ensure safety.
The LAPD released a statement that read in part:
The facts and circumstances surrounding the murder of Andrea DelVesco earlier this year was a devastating and unspeakable tragedy for her family, friends, the community and the men and women of the LAPD. We cannot fully comprehend the grief her parents and other loved ones have suffered from their loss and the senior detectives from LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division worked tirelessly to identify and arrest Andrea’s suspected murderers so that they may face justice. As additional details were discovered about the circumstances of the incident, the LAPD took swift action to hold Department personnel accountable for mistakes made in the initial stages of the investigation.
Two rookie officers were with Sudduth and Williams that morning. They are still on the force, according to CNN.
Case law is filled with examples of exigent circumstances. But keep your guard up, since no two cases are alike. While two LAPD officers have lost their job, there are two rookies who learned some valuable lessons regarding exigent circumstances.