Supreme Court OKs Warrantless House Search
By David Kravets
May 17, 2011
Police do not need a search warrant to knock on a suspected drug dealer’s door and then kick it down when a suspicious bustling noise is heard from the other side, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1.
Monday’s decision seemingly settles a legal issue to which the justices have given little guidance in the past — what type of “exigent circumstances” allow warrantless entry into a house. In this case, a lower court had thrown out the police search on the grounds that the cops effectively created their own emergency — the police had banged on the suspect door without a warrant, and then crashed through it moments later for fear that their knocking had set the inhabitants to destroying evidence. The police could have gotten the warrant before knocking in the first place, a dissenting justice ruled.
The appeal concerned a 2005 crack cocaine sting operation in Lexington, Kentucky, in which an informant purchased cocaine from a suspect outside an apartment complex. The suspect then walked through a breezeway of the complex, and officers on foot lost track of him.
The police, however, smelled marijuana outside an apartment, which was not the apartment the suspect had entered. They knocked and yelled “police,” heard some noise inside and kicked down the door to let themselves in on a belief that drug evidence was possibly being destroyed. The suspect they were looking for was not there, but three others were arrested for marijuana and cocaine possession.
One defendant, Hollis King, challenged his arrest, claiming it was based on an illegal entry. He pleaded guilty on the condition of an appeal and was sentenced to 10 years. A local judge said the authorities had the right to enter his apartment based on the smell of marijuana and the rumbling sounds inside the apartment. The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed, saying the entry was a Fourth Amendment breach.
“The Kentucky Supreme Court held that the exigent circumstances rule does not apply in the case at hand because the police should have foreseen that their conduct would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence,” Alito wrote. “We reject this interpretation of the exigent circumstances rule. The conduct of the police prior to their entry into the apartment was entirely lawful. They did not violate the Fourth Amendment or threaten to do so. In such a situation, the exigent circumstances rule applies.” (.pdf)
The decision was an offshoot of a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the police may not enter a private residence without a warrant unless there was probable cause and so-called “exigent” circumstances.
The authorities in the case decided Monday claimed the exigent circumstance was a belief that drug evidence was being destroyed. Nobody disputes that the smell of marijuana created the probable cause.
But was there an emergency, an “exigent circumstance” where there was not enough time to obtain a court warrant? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed the police needed a warrant before entering the apartment.
“The court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases,” Ginsburg wrote. “In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”
The Kentucky Supreme Court found the potential destruction of evidence was an exigent circumstance, but ruled in January that it was unlawfully created by the police.
“Where police are observing a suspect from a lawful vantage point, and the suspect sees police, then the exigency is generally not police-created. But where police unnecessarily announce their presence, and this creates the fear that evidence will be destroyed, police have created their own exigency, (.pdf) and cannot rely on the fear of evidence being destroyed as a justification for a warrantless entry,” the Kentucky high court ruled.
At least 16 states had weighed in on the case, (.pdf) urging the justices to set a nationwide standard on the issue.