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Supreme Court gives police leeway in home searches

Officers may break in if they hear sounds and suspect that evidence is being destroyed, the justices say in an 8-1 decision. Justice Ginsburg dissents.

May 17, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Cypress police move towards a house as they respond to a report of shots fired.
Cypress police move towards a house as they respond to a report of shots fired. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court gave police more leeway to break into homes or apartments in search of illegal drugs when they suspect the evidence otherwise might be destroyed.

Ruling in a Kentucky case Monday, the justices said that 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, said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for an 8-1 majority.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she feared the ruling gave police an easy way to ignore 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. She said the 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 said the decision would encourage the 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. I'm even more surprised that nearly all of them went along," said John Wesley Hall, a criminal defense lawyer in Little Rock, Ark.

In the past, the court has insisted that homes are special preserves. As Alito said, "The 4th 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 may also pursue a fleeing suspect who enters a residence.

The Kentucky case began when police in Lexington sought to arrest a man who had sold crack cocaine to an informer. They followed the man to an apartment building, but lost contact with him. They smelled marijuana coming from one apartment. Though it turned out not to be the apartment of their suspect, they pounded on the door, called, "Police," and heard people moving inside.

At this, the officers announced they were coming in and broke down the door. Instead of the original suspect, they found Hollis King smoking marijuana and arrested him. They also found powder cocaine. King was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

The Supreme Court ruled in Kentucky vs. King that the officers' conduct "was entirely lawful," and they were justified in breaking in to prevent the destruction of the evidence.

"When law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen may do," Alito wrote. A resident need not respond, he added. But the sounds of people moving and perhaps toilets being flushed could justify police entering without a warrant.

The ruling was not a final loss for King. The justices said the Kentucky state court should consider again whether police had faced an emergency situation in this case.

david.savage@latimes.com

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