LOS ANGELES -- In ruling yesterday to admit evidence seized without a warrant at O. J. Simpson's house, Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell relied on her interpretation of a well-established legal principle.
That principle holds that there are times when searches and seizures may take place without a warrant because "exigent circumstances" -- or circumstances that have a certain urgency -- outweigh the usual constitutional safeguards provided by the Fourth Amendment.
How much and what type of urgency constitutes an "exigent circumstance?" That, of course, is the ultimate point of contention in all search-and-seizure disputes. The argument is never over whether there can be warrantless searches and seizures, but whether the particular search and seizure being debated should have been conducted without a warrant.
In Judge Kennedy-Powell's opinion in the Simpson case, an exigent circumstance existed in the early hours of June 13 because the detectives who went to the Simpson home were confronted with a series of portentous questions that needed quick answers.
"The Fourth Amendment is alive and well," she said, finding no fault with the conduct of the detectives. "There's nothing new, nothing novel that I'm coming up with here. There are exigent circumstances that on occasion justify a warrantless entry and a limited search, and this is what occurred in this particular case. They reasonably believed that a further delay could have resulted in the unnecessary loss of life."
Judge Kennedy-Powell conceded that defining an exigent circumstance was a "gray area." She said that there was "no set formula" for reaching a decision and that a determination thus has to be made on a case-by-case basis. She noted that the prosecution and defense teams had cited "numerous cases" in their arguments. But she said that she had found an "additional" case -- People of California vs. Cain -- that she thought more closely fit the circumstances of the Simpson case.
In that case, decided in 1989, the state's 5th District Court of Appeals ruled that officers investigating a rape were justified, though they had no warrant, in entering an apartment next to the apartment where the rape took place.
The investigating officers heard music coming from the unlocked apartment and noted that the lights inside were on. After failing to arouse anyone by knocking, they decided to enter, concerned that they might find another victim. Instead, they found bloody clothing and an intoxicated man who eventually was implicated in the attack.
In holding that there was an exigent circumstance for a warrantless entry, the court stated:
"It was in the early morning hours when most people are asleep, the officers were aware of a recent brutal attack on a defenseless elderly woman next door, the search was close in time to the attack, and they relied on their substantial experience in finding the situation unusual. They were acting for a benevolent purpose, and in light of the brutal attack a delay may have resulted in the unnecessary loss of life."
In yesterday's decision, Judge Kennedy-Powell copied much of the reasoning in the Cain case, finding not only that the investigating officers acted for a "benevolent" reason but also that they had based their action on "years of experience."
Mr. Simpson may not appeal yesterday's finding, but should he eventually be bound over to Superior Court for trial, he could raise the warrant issue anew there.
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