Exigent Circumstances: Hot Pursuit

Supreme Court of the United States

Warden, Maryland Penitentiary v. Bennie Joe Hayden

Decided May 29, 1967 – 387 U.S. 294  


Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.



About 8 a.m. on March 17, 1962, an armed robber entered the business premises of the Diamond Cab Company in Baltimore, Maryland. He took some $363 and ran. Two cab drivers in the vicinity, attracted by shouts of “Holdup,” followed the man to 2111 Cocoa Lane. One driver notified the company dispatcher by radio that the man was a Negro about 5’ 8” tall, wearing a light cap and dark jacket, and that he had entered the house on Cocoa Lane. The dispatcher relayed the information to police who were proceeding to the scene of the robbery. Within minutes, police arrived at the house in a number of patrol cars. An officer knocked and announced their presence. Mrs. Hayden answered, and the officers told her they believed that a robber had entered the house, and asked to search the house. She offered no objection.46

The officers spread out through the first and second floors and the cellar in search of the robber. Hayden was found in an upstairs bedroom feigning sleep. He was arrested when the officers on the first floor and in the cellar reported that no other man was in the house. Meanwhile an officer was attracted to an adjoining bathroom by the noise of running water, and discovered a shotgun and a pistol in a flush tank; another officer who, according to the District Court, “was searching the cellar for a man or the money” found in a washing machine a jacket and trousers of the type the fleeing man was said to have worn. A clip of ammunition for the pistol and a cap were found under the mattress of Hayden’s bed, and ammunition for the shotgun was found in a bureau drawer in Hayden’s room. All these items of evidence were introduced against respondent at his trial.


We agree with the Court of Appeals that neither the entry without warrant to search for the robber, nor the search for him without warrant was invalid. Under the circumstances of this case, “the exigencies of the situation made that course imperative.” The police were informed that an armed robbery had taken place, and that the suspect had entered 2111 Cocoa Lane less than five minutes before they reached it. They acted reasonably when they entered the house and began to search for a man of the description they had been given and for weapons which he had used in the robbery or might use against them. The Fourth Amendment does not require police officers to delay in the course of an investigation if to do so would gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others. Speed here was essential, and only a thorough search of the house for persons and weapons could have insured that Hayden was the only man present and that the police had control of all weapons which could be used against them or to effect an escape.

[T]he seizures occurred prior to or immediately contemporaneous with Hayden’s arrest, as part of an effort to find a suspected felon, armed, within the house into which he had run only minutes before the police arrived. The permissible scope of search must, therefore, at the least, be as broad as may reasonably be necessary to prevent the dangers that the suspect at large in the house may resist or escape.


Notes, Comments, and Questions 

Hot pursuit allows officers to follow a fleeing felon into a house. The Court has explained that “‘hot pursuit’ means some sort of a chase, but it need not be an extended hue and cry ‘in and about (the) public streets.’” United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976).

After entering a home in hot pursuit, police may look around to protect themselves, find the suspect, find weapons, etc. The Court in Hayden even allows an officer to search a washing machine around the time the suspect was caught elsewhere. Consider the following scenario:

Police have probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor. The suspect flees, and police give chase. If the suspect enters a home, may police follow? Why or why not? See Stanton v. Sims, 571 U.S. 3 (2013) (declining to decide the question); People v. Wear, 893 N.E.2d 631 (Ill. 2008) (extending “hot pursuit” doctrine to misdemeanors).

In addition to its appearance in criminal procedure law, “hot pursuit” is a term of art in international law. A “backgrounder” published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) describes the doctrine as follows: “The doctrine generally pertains to the law of the seas and the ability of one state’s navy to pursue a foreign ship that has violated laws and regulations in its territorial waters (twelve nautical miles from shore), even if the ship flees to the high seas.” Quoting Professor Michael P. Scharf, the CFR document explained further: “It means you are literally and temporally in pursuit and following the tail of a fugitive. … [A state] is allowed to temporarily violate borders to make an apprehension under those circumstances.”

Students interested in further information can review the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which covers hot pursuit in Article 111, along with the 1958 Convention on the High Seas, which covers the doctrine in Article 23. Students will notice similarities among the international law doctrine and our domestic criminal procedure rule. Under each, state agents are permitted to briefly enter otherwise prohibited areas for law enforcement purposes. On the other hand, application of “hot pursuit” on land (for example, entering a foreign country to capture or kill a wanted terrorist) is disputed in international law. 

In the next case, the Court considers whether a “routine felony arrest” constitutes exigent circumstances and accordingly allows warrantless entry of a home in which police have probable cause to believe the felony suspect will be found. Students should consider that even in the Bronx in 1970—the location and year of the search at issue—the crime rate was not so high that arresting a man suspected of murdering someone two days earlier during an armed robbery had become “routine.” What then made this scenario different from “hot pursuit” and other sorts of exigent circumstances in the eyes of the Justices? 


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