The justices in an 8-1 decision said officers who loudly knock on a door and then hear sounds suggesting evidence is being destroyed may break down the door and enter without a search warrant.
Supreme Court gives police a new entryway into homes
The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision in a Kentucky case, says police officers who loudly knock on a door in search of illegal drugs and then hear sounds suggesting evidence is being destroyed may break down the door and enter without a search warrant.
In a lone dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she feared the ruling in a Kentucky case will give police an easy way to ignore the 4th Amendment. "Police officers may not knock, listen and then break the door down," she said, without violating the 4th Amendment.
In the past, the court has said police usually may not enter a home unless they have a search warrant or the permission of the owner. As Alito said, "The 4th Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house."
One exception to that rule involves an emergency, such as screams coming from a house. Police may also pursue a fleeing suspect who enters a residence. Police were attempting to do that in the Kentucky case, but they entered the wrong apartment, raising the issue of what is permissible in situations where police have reason to believe evidence is being destroyed.
It began when police in Lexington, Ky., were following a suspect who allegedly had sold crack cocaine to an informer and then walked into an apartment building. They did not see which apartment he entered, but when they smelled marijuana smoke come from one of the apartments, they wrongly assumed he had gone into that one. They pounded on the door and called "Police. Police. Police," and heard the sounds of people moving.
At this, the officers announced they were coming in, and they broke down the door. They found Hollis King smoking marijuana, and put him under arrest. They also found powder cocaine. King was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
But the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned his conviction and ruled the apartment break-in violated his 4th Amendment right against "unreasonable searches and seizures." Police had created an emergency by pounding on the door, the state justices said.
The Supreme Court heard an appeal from state prosecutors and reversed the ruling in Kentucky vs. King. Alito said the police conduct in this case "was entirely lawful," and they were justified in breaking down the door 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," he 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, he added.
"Destruction of evidence issues probably occur most frequently in drug cases because drugs may be easily destroyed by flushing down a toilet," he added.
The ruling was not a final loss for King. The justices said the Kentucky state court should consider again whether the police faced an emergency situation in this case.
Ginsburg, however, said the court's approach "arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the 4th Amendment's warrant requirement in drug cases." She said the police did not face a "genuine emergency" and should not have been allowed to enter the apartment without a warrant.