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Wayne v. United States – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In Wayne v. United States, 115 U.S. App. D.C. 234, 318 F.2d 205 (D.C. Cir. 1963), Judge Warren E. Burger (later Chief Justice of the United States) articulated this overarching but often overlooked fact of police life:

A warrant is not required to break down a door to enter a burning home to rescue occupants or extinguish a fire, to prevent a shooting or to bring emergency aid to an injured person. The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency. Fires or dead bodies are reported to police by cranks where no fires or bodies are to be found.

Acting in response to reports of "dead bodies," the police may find the "bodies" to be common drunks, diabetics in shock, or distressed cardiac patients. But the business of policemen and firemen is to act, not to speculate or meditate on whether the report is correct. People could well die in emergencies if police tried to act with the calm deliberation associated with the judicial process.

Even the apparently dead often are saved by swift police response. A myriad of circumstances could fall within the terms "exigent circumstances", e.g., smoke coming out a window or under a door, the sound of gunfire in the house, threats from the inside to shoot through the door at police, reasonable grounds to believe an injured or seriously ill person is being held within.