The Supreme Court on Monday gave police more leeway to break into homes or apartments in search of illegal drugs when they suspect the evidence might be destroyed.
The justices said officers who smell marijuana and loudly knock on the door may break in if they hear sounds that suggest the residents are scurrying to hide the drugs.
Residents who "attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame" when police burst in, Justice Samuel Alito said for an 8-1 majority.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that she feared the ruling in a Kentucky case had handed the police an important new tool.
"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."
She said the Fourth Amendment's "core requirement" is that officers have probable cause and a search warrant before they break into a house.
"How 'secure' do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and ... forcibly enter?" Ginsburg asked.
An expert on criminal searches agreed, saying the decision would encourage police to undertake "knock and talk" raids.
"I'm surprised the Supreme Court would condone this, that if the police hear suspicious noises inside, they can break in," said John Wesley Hall, a criminal-defense lawyer in Little Rock, Ark. "I'm even more surprised that nearly all of them went along."
The court in the past has insisted that homes are special preserves. As Alito said, the Fourth Amendment "has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house." One exception to the search-warrant rule involves an emergency, such as screams coming from a house. Police also may pursue a fleeing suspect who enters a residence.
The Kentucky case arose from a mistake. After seeing a drug deal in a parking lot, Lexington police officers rushed into an apartment complex looking for a suspect who had sold cocaine to an informant.
But the smell of burning marijuana led them to the wrong apartment. After knocking and announcing themselves, they heard sounds that they said made them fear that evidence was being destroyed. They kicked the door in and found marijuana and cocaine but not the original suspect.
The Kentucky Supreme Court suppressed the evidence, saying any risk of drugs being destroyed was the result of the decision by police to knock and announce themselves rather than obtain a warrant.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision Monday, saying police had acted lawfully and that was all that mattered. The defendant, Hollis D. King, had choices other than destroying evidence, Alito wrote.
King could have chosen not to respond to the knocking in any fashion, Alito wrote. Or he could have come to the door and declined to let the officers enter without a warrant.
Alito took pains to say the majority was not deciding whether an emergency justifying an exception to the warrant requirement — an "exigent circumstance," in legal jargon — existed. He said the Kentucky Supreme Court "expressed doubt on this issue" and that "any question about whether an exigency actually existed is better addressed" by the state court.
All the U.S. Supreme Court decided, Alito wrote, was when evidence must be suppressed because police had created the exigency. Lower courts had approached that question in five ways.
The standard announced Monday, Alito wrote, had the virtue of simplicity.
"Where, as here, the police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment," he wrote, "warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed."
But "there is a strong argument," Alito added, that evidence would have to be suppressed when police did more than knock and announce themselves. In general, he wrote, "the exigent circumstances rule should not apply where the police, without a warrant or any legally sound basis for a warrantless entry, threaten that they will enter without permission unless admitted."
Ginsburg, dissenting, said the majority had taken a wrong turn.
"The urgency must exist, I would rule," she wrote, "when the police come on the scene, not subsequent to their arrival, prompted by their own conduct."
The ruling was not a final loss for King. The justices said the Kentucky state court should consider again whether police faced an emergency situation in this case.
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