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Supreme Court allows warrantless drug search in Kentucky case

May 18, 2011


The United States Supreme Court handed down a decision today that will profoundly affect the way police search for drugs.  In reviewing a case out of Lexington, Kentucky, the Court—in an eight to one decision—ruled that “exigent circumstances” are created when police reasonably believe a suspect is in the process of destroying evidence, and therefore a search warrant is not constitutionally required.

In the case of Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Hollis DeShaun King, the Lexington police conducted a “buy bust” raid on October 13, 2005, at an apartment on Center Parkway.  Officers followed a suspected drug dealer to the apartment complex, and testified that they smelled marijuana outside an apartment door, knocked loudly, and announced their presence. As soon as the officers began knocking, they heard noises coming from the apartment which sounded like something was being flushed down a toilet.

The officers announced their intent to enter the apartment, kicked in the door, and found Mr. King and others; along with drugs in plain view.   The Fayette Circuit Court denied King’s motion to suppress the evidence, holding that exigent circumstances–the need to prevent destruction of evidence–justified the warrantless entry. King entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving his right to appeal the suppression ruling, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of Kentucky reversed. The court assumed that exigent circumstances existed, but it nonetheless invalidated the search. The exigent circumstances rule did not apply, the court held, because the police should have foreseen that their conduct would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence.

But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Kentucky Supreme Court, ruling that the exigent circumstances rule applies when the police do not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment.  Restating the established rule that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the Court created a new test to determine when and if police impermissibly create an exigency.

According to the Court, the “proper test” to determine whether warrantless searches are allowed is whether or not the police actually created the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct violating the Fourth Amendment:

“Assuming an exigency did exist, the officers’ conduct–banging on the door and announcing their presence–was entirely consistent with the Fourth Amendment. (King) has pointed to no evidence supporting his argument that the officers made any sort of ‘demand’ to enter the apartment, much less a demand that amounts to a threat to violate the Fourth Amendment.”

Justice Samuel Alito delivered the majority opinion of the Court, and Chief Justice Roberts joined in the opinion, along with Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.   Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which she said:

“The Court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases. In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”

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