HI: “[T]he gravity of the crime standing alone cannot establish exigent circumstances” for warrantless entry

Defendant’s unprovoked attack in stabbing a woman on a beach and then fleeing to his home wasn’t exigent by the time the police got there. “[T]he gravity of the crime standing alone cannot establish exigent circumstances.” State v. Willis, 2021 Haw. LEXIS 268 (Dec. 2, 2021):

Ordinarily police officers must get a warrant before entering a home without permission. But when exigent circumstances arise, and the police have probable cause to arrest or search, our state and federal constitutions allow warrantless home entries.

The State invokes this “exigent circumstances” exception to justify a warrantless home entry into Erik Willis’s residence. It advances an expansive view on what creates an “exigency”: it argues a crime’s random and violent nature alone can pose exigent circumstances validating a warrantless home intrusion.

We hold that the gravity of the crime, by itself, does not establish an exigency empowering law enforcement officers to bypass the warrant requirement. To support a warrantless home intrusion under the exigency exception, the State must articulate objective facts showing an immediate law enforcement need for the entry. Those facts must be independent of the underlying offense’s grave nature. And they must be present when the police enter the home.

. . .

The State must prove exigency; it must identify “specific and articulable facts” showing why the police had to act without delay. Pulse, 83 Hawai’i at 245, 925 P.2d at 813 (citation omitted).

Here, the State insists that exigent circumstances existed because Willis posed an “imminent danger to the public.” Willis’s “random, unprovoked stabbing of a woman lying on the beach,” the State argues, made him dangerous. The State says that given the “stranger-danger” nature of the crime, the police couldn’t wait for a warrant. The State also mentions that: Willis had previously bit a paramedic who tried to help him; some surveillance videos showed Willis suspiciously looking around on the day of the stabbing; and the police hadn’t recovered the knife used in the attack.

That’s it. The State does not point to any other facts demanding an immediate police intervention. What it articulates does not validate the HPD officers’ warrantless entry into Willis’s home.

First, the State’s reliance on the stabbing’s violent and random nature fails. The State does not identify any case that held the grave or violent nature of the underlying offense alone can justify a warrantless search or seizure within one’s home. And we are unaware of any case supporting that proposition.

Rather, the gravity of the crime standing alone cannot establish exigent circumstances. See, e.g., Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 752 (1984) (recognizing that “courts have permitted warrantless home arrests for major felonies if identifiable exigencies, independent of the gravity of the offense, existed at the time of the arrest” (emphasis added)); Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 394 (1978) (declining “to hold that the seriousness of the offense under investigation itself creates exigent circumstances of the kind that under the Fourth Amendment justify a warrantless search”).

This approach makes sense. If the underlying offense’s troubling nature alone can create exigent circumstances as the State suggests, all “stranger-danger” and violent assault cases would meet the exigency exception. The expansive reach of the State’s position dooms it. Caniglia v. Strom, _ U.S. _, 141 S. Ct. 1596, 1600 (2021) (emphasizing that the Court “has repeatedly declined to expand the scope of exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home” (cleaned up)).

We hold that the gravity of the underlying crime, by itself, cannot supply exigent circumstances validating warrantless home intrusions.

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