Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider giving the police more leeway to seize criminal evidence, even when they mistakenly break into the wrong home while pursuing a suspect.
Kentucky vs. King was one of 14 new cases the justices said they would decide in their new term. They met Monday for the first time since June and pored over nearly 2,000 appeal petitions that had piled up over the summer.
In the Kentucky case, the justices will decide whether to further relax the so-called exclusionary rule, which forbids the use of illegally seized evidence. It began when police in Lexington followed a suspected drug dealer as he entered an apartment building.
They walked down a hallway and, detecting the smell of marijuana, broke into an apartment. They did not have a search warrant. Inside, they found Hollis King and two others with marijuana and crack cocaine. King was arrested and pleaded guilty, but he also contended the search of his apartment was illegal — because the original suspect apparently had gone into an apartment across the hall.
In January, the Kentucky Supreme Court threw out evidence against King and said police had not been facing an emergency that justified breaking into the apartment.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, said illegally seized evidence should not be thrown out if police made an honest mistake. On Tuesday, the justices said they would hear the appeal from Kentucky prosecutors, who contended the search and seizure were justified because police thought they were entering the right apartment.
In a second criminal case, the justices will reconsider whether lab technicians must testify routinely at trials.
Last year, the court, in another 5-4 ruling, said lab technicians were witnesses for the prosecution and generally must be available to testify. But in a drunk driving case from New Mexico, the state courts said a lab worker who simply recorded the readings from a blood alcohol testing machine did not need to testify.
The justices, however, voted to hear the motorist's appeal in Bullcoming vs. New Mexico.
The court also agreed to hear two significant appeals from businesses.
In Astra USA vs. Santa Clara County, the court will decide whether local governments can sue drug makers for overcharging public hospitals for prescription drugs. Two years ago, the federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld such a suit, but lawyers for the drug maker contended the suits should be dismissed.
In General Dynamics Corp. and Boeing vs. U.S., the defense contractors say they should not be forced to repay $3 billion for defaulting on a contract to build a stealth fighter for the Navy. The appeal raises the issue of whether the government must reveal "state secrets" in litigation but in a novel way. The contractors say that because the Pentagon withheld secrets of the stealth technology, they had been unable to fulfill the contract.
The court also agreed to decide whether the estate of Anna Nicole Smith deserved part of the fortune of her late husband, Texas billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, who died in 1995. Since the case began, Smith and Marshall's son Pierce have died, but the litigation continues. The new case is Stern vs. Marshall.
And for those who want to listen to a Supreme Court argument, the court announced it would post on its website http://www.supremecourt.gov at the end of each week the audio recordings for cases heard that week.