Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978)

It is often said that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, ‘‘subject only to a few specifically established and welldelineated exceptions’’ (Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 1967). Entering and searching a home in an emergency situation—an exigent circumstance, in the parlance of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence— qualifies as an exception to the warrant requirement. In Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978), the Supreme Court underscored the importance of exigency in warrantless searches of the home.

Ten plainclothes police officers came to Rufus Mincey’s apartment to arrest himfor narcotics offenses. Ashootout ensued, leaving one officer dead and Mincey injured. For four days and without a search warrant, the police searched Mincey’s entire apartment, opening drawers, closets, and cupboards, pulling up the carpet, digging bullet fragments out of the walls and floors. ‘‘In short,’’ the Court said, ‘‘Mincey’s apartment was subjected to an exhaustive and intrusive search.’’ The state argued that a search of a homicide scene, which Mincey’s apartment was, ‘‘should be recognized as . . . an exception [to the warrant requirement].’’

The Court refused to add a crime-scene exception to the growing list of exceptions to the warrant requirement. With no emergency impelling the search here, the Court ‘‘decline[d] 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.’’ The warrantless search must end when the exigency ends. The Court’s refusal to ‘‘sacrifice[d]’’ the privacy people have in their homes ‘‘in the name of maximum simplicity in enforcement of the criminal law’’ reflects the settled understanding that the Fourth Amendment regards the sanctity of the home as the apex of privacy.

DANIEL R. WILLIAMS

References and Further Reading

  • Dressler, Joshua. Understanding Criminal Procedure, 3rd ed. New York: LexisNexis, 2002.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967)
  • Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978)

See also Exclusionary Rule; Search (General Definition); Seizures; Warrantless Searches

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