Supreme Court: No warrant needed if police discern destruction of evidence
The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 on a Kentucky case in which police broke into an apartment after smelling marijuana and hearing sounds suggesting evidence was being destroyed.
(Page 2 of 2)
That action would then create the emergency that would be used to justify breaking down the door and conducting the search without a warrant, the Kentucky high court said.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In reversing that decision on Monday, the US Supreme Court said the correct test is not whether the actions of police might trigger the attempted destruction of evidence. The proper test, the court said, is whether police conducted themselves in a reasonable manner prior to the emergency that required the warrantless search.
“Where, as here, the police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment, warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion.
“Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for the warrantless exigent-circumstances search that may ensue,” he wrote.
Justice Alito drew the distinction between officers knocking on a door and announcing their presence versus a police officer threatening to kick down the door unless it is opened immediately. In the first example, if officers suddenly detected sounds of evidence being destroyed their warrantless entry would be justified. But in the second example, it would most likely not be justified, he said.
Justice Ginsburg is lone dissenter
In a lone dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday’s decision would arm the police with a way to routinely by-pass Fourth Amendment search warrant requirements in drug cases.
“In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down,” she said. “Never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”
Justice Ginsburg said that in her view the emergency cited by police to justify the warrantless search must already exist when police arrive at the scene, not subsequent to their arrival and prompted by their own conduct.
She said there was nothing in the record suggesting that police – before knocking – couldn’t have posted officers outside the residence while other officers sought a warrant authorizing their entry and search.
The Supreme Court decision establishes a rule for police conduct in situations in which an exigency exists. In King’s particular case, the Kentucky Supreme Court still needs to decide whether one existed. The high court remanded the case to decide that question. The case is Kentucky v. King (09-1272).