Law Enforcement Response at a Crisis Scene: Protecting Lives and Preserving the Admissibility of Evidence

By Hoover, Lucy Ann | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Law Enforcement Response at a Crisis Scene: Protecting Lives and Preserving the Admissibility of Evidence


Hoover, Lucy Ann, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


In today's world and the war on terrorism, law enforcement officers must be ever mindful of the fact that, as some predict, a suicide bombing on American soil may be simply a matter of time. Imagine a familiar scene, a young college student carrying a backpack while walking on campus and stopping to sit on a bench within 500 feet of a football stadium packed with over 84,000 people. What happens next transforms this common occurrence on any campus in the nation into a terrible nightmare. Moments before halftime, the chemicals being carried by this young man detonate, causing an explosion heard almost 5 miles away. The detonation instantly kills the young student. Law enforcement officers sworn to protect the public will rush to the scene, ever ready to render aid and protect the innocent. Then, they will direct attention to determining the identity of the bomber, the type of device used, where it was assembled, and whether the bomber received assistance in its assembly. In the aftermath of such an incident, officers cannot allow their emotions and good intentions to overshadow the restraints placed upon them by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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This article discusses the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions addressing the parameters placed on the government by the Fourth Amendment in emergency situations and crime scene searches in general. It also addresses the pitfalls with which law enforcement officers wrestle based on motives ranging from a desire to solve the crime as quickly as possible to a lack of understanding as to how far the emergency exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment extends.

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REASONABLENESS REQUIREMENT

For almost 40 years, the Supreme Court has held steadfast to its ruling in Katz v. United States (1) in which it created the presumption that all searches conducted without a warrant are unreasonable. In Katz, the government argued that it had, with good intentions, policed itself. That is, it proceeded with the search in such a way as to ensure that the evidence collected was limited in scope and pertained only to the activities of Katz, the subject of the investigation. Irrespective of its intentions, the Supreme Court found that "although the surveillance was so narrowly circumscribed that it could constitutionally have been authorized in advance, it was not in fact conducted pursuant to the warrant procedure which is a constitutional precondition" and, therefore, deemed to be illegal. (2)

In subsequent rulings, the Supreme Court has made it clear time and time again that the phrasing afforded by America's founding fathers to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is more than a mere litany of words:

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
    papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,
    shall not be violated, and no Warrant shall issue, but upon
    probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly
    describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to
    be seized." (3)

PRESUMED UNREASONABLENESS

In Katz, the Supreme Court redefined the concept of what constitutes a search, focusing on privacy expectations rather than the physical intrusions by the government. The Court concluded that where such expectations exist, law enforcement officers are mandated to obtain a valid search warrant prior to proceeding with a search or the presumption that their actions were illegal will prevent them from introducing the fruits of their work. (4) To obtain a valid search warrant pursuant to the requirements set forth in the Fourth Amendment, officers must establish probable cause to believe that the location to be searched contains evidence of a crime and the evidence sought must be particularly described.

In traditional law enforcement, the Fourth Amendment is interpreted as requiring a warrant prior to infringing upon a person's reasonable expectation of privacy. …

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