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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Upholds Exigent-Circumstances Search of Apartment that Smelled of Pot

Posted May 16, 2011 9:45 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Police who thought they heard sounds of evidence being destroyed after knocking on the door of an apartment that smelled of marijuana were entitled to knock down the door and search the place, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The Supreme Court upheld the warrantless search of an apartment in Lexington, Ky., in an 8-1 decision (PDF), ruling the search was permissible because of the “exigent circumstances.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

The Kentucky Supreme Court had ruled the search was not allowed under the exigent-circumstances rule because police should have foreseen that knocking on the door and announcing their presence would lead those in the apartment to try to destroy evidence. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the rule can justify the search when police acted lawfully before entering the apartment.

Police had entered the apartment building while following a suspect who had sold drugs to an undercover informant. A door slammed, indicating the suspect had entered one of two apartments. Police assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the suspect was in the apartment that smelled of marijuana. They knocked and announced themselves, and kicked in the door when they heard sounds of things being moved in the apartment. Once inside, they found marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia.

“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,” Alito wrote.

Alito said the occupants of the apartment could have refused to open the door or to speak with the officers. Or they could have talked to police, but refused to allow them inside. “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,” Alito said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. “The court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases,” she wrote. “In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."

The case is Kentucky v. King.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Do a Whiff of Pot and Suspicious Sounds Justify Police Search? Supreme Court Mulls Issue"

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