Warrantless searches expanded in drug case

May 16, 2011 at 10:48 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, made it easier for police to break down a door and enter an apartment without a warrant in drug cases.

At issue is the "exigent circumstances rule" -- allowing police to act without a warrant when they believe circumstances make a search without a warrant "reasonable" despite the restrictions in the Fourth Amendment banning "unreasonable" searches and seizures.

Police in Lexington, Ky., set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine, then followed the suspected drug dealer back to an apartment complex. Smelling marijuana outside an apartment door, they knocked loudly and announced their presence. At that point they heard sounds from inside the apartment "consistent with the destruction of evidence."

The police then said they were coming in, broke down the door and saw drugs in plain view.

The suspect pleaded guilty conditionally -- on the condition he could appeal for the suppression of the evidence. Eventually, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the exigent circumstances rule did not apply because the police should have foreseen their conduct would prompt the apartment occupants to destroy the evidence. In other words, the police should have paused and obtained a warrant.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and announced by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority said assuming "that an exigency existed here, there is no evidence that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so ... "

The majority sent the case back down to the Kentucky Supreme Court for a new ruling consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter.

"The [Supreme] 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, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."

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