High Court Upholds Warrantless Search
Monday, May 16, 2011
(CN) – By a big majority, the Supreme Court has reversed and remanded the case of a suspected drug dealer who charged that police conducted an unlawful, warrantless search of his home in the belief that he was destroying evidence behind a locked apartment door.
Both a federal appeals court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances in the case – the need to prevent destruction of evidence – justified warrantless entry into the home of Hollis Deshaun King by Lexington police officers.
After all, the courts said, police officers had smelled marijuana outside the apartment, had knocked loudly and announced their presence. As soon as they did so, court papers said, the officers heard noises inside the apartment that they believed were consistent with the destruction of evidence.
After they kicked down the door, they saw drugs in plain view inside and found additional evidence during a subsequent search. King later entered a guilty plea, conditional to his being able to challenge the admissibility of the evidence against him.
But the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the earlier decisions, holding that while exigent circumstance existed, the police should have foreseen that their conduct would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence.
Under the "police-created exigency" doctrine, which lower courts have developed as an exception to the exigent circumstances rule under the Fourth Amendment exigent circumstance do not justify a warrantless search when the exigency is "created" or "manufactured" by the conduct of the police. The lower courts have not agreed, however, on the test for determining when police impermissibly create an exigency.
In this case, the Kentucky Supreme Court asked whether the officers deliberately created the exigent circumstances with the bad faith intent to avoid the warrant requirements, essentially faulting the officers for knocking on the door when they had sufficient evidence to seek a warrant but did not do so.
The court also held that an exigency is impermissibly created when officers engaged in conduct that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry was imminent and inevitable.
Writing for the 8-1 high court majority, Justice Samuel Alito held that both rationales were wrong.
According to Alito, "the ability of officers to respond to an exigency cannot turn on such subtleties as the officers; tone of voice in announcing their presence and the forcefulness of their knocks.
"A forceful knock many be necessary to alert the occupants that someone is at the door, and unless officers identify themselves loudly enough, occupants may not know who is at their doorstep," he continued. "Respondent’s test would make it extremely difficult for officers to know how loudly they may announce their presence or how forcefully they may knock without running afoul of the police-create exigency rule. And in most cases, it would be nearly impossible for a court to determine whether that threshold has been passed."
In this case, Alito wrote, there was no evidence that the officers either violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so prior to the point when they entered the apartment.
Alito was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, and justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
In a stinging dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the High Court had armed the police with "a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases.
"In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."
While she agreed that the smell of marijuana wafting under the apartment door created probable cause to investigate the situation further, she held that "the right of officers to thrust themselves into a home is… a grave concern."
"If the officers in this case were excused from the constitutional duty of presenting their evidence to a magistrate, it is difficult to think of [any] case in which [a warrant] should be required," Ginsburg wrote.