Warrantless Entry By Police When Evidence Is Being Destroyed

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in May 2011 pertaining to rules governing entry and search of a home by police. Specifically, the Court said that in some instances police may enter a home without a warrant if they believe that evidence is being destroyed.

The case of Kentucky v. King deals with the following facts:

Lexington, Kentucky, police witnessed a drug deal in a parking lot and pursued a suspect into an apartment building. Inside the building the odor of burning marijuana emanated from an apartment. When the police knocked on the door and identified themselves, they heard what they interpreted as sounds of evidence being destroyed. They then forced their way into the apartment and found Hollis King with cocaine and marijuana. King was arrested and eventually convicted of drug trafficking. He received an 11 year prison sentence. (Ironically, the original suspect was not present in this apartment.)

The Supreme Court had to determine whether police violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches. The answer, by an 8-1 majority, was that the Lexington police were justified in entering the apartment and did not violate King's constitutional rights.

The Fourth Amendment states that citizens should not be subjected to unreasonable searches and that police must demonstrate probable cause before obtaining a warrant.

The Court has stated in previous cases, however, that police may conduct a search without a warrant when "exigent," or emergency, circumstances exist. For example, if police are chasing a suspect in a bank robbery and that suspect enters a house, the police do not have to ask the courts for a warrant because doing so would allow the suspect to hide evidence or escape. The emergency nature of the pursuit allows them to conduct a warrantless entry and search of the house.

In Kentucky v. King, the Court ruled that an exigent circumstance exists when police knock on a door, announce their presence, and then hear what they interpret as destruction of evidence. The police are justified in entering the house or apartment without a warrant, as long as they do not create the exigent circumstance "by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment."

The Court emphasized that the officers simply knocked on the door and identified themselves. The defendant, they said, could have taken other actions that would not have resulted in the police entering the apartment. For example, he could have not responded or could have come to the door and stated that he was not granting his permission for the police to enter. He chose, however, to engage in actions that gave the police reason to believe that evidence was being destroyed. This allowed them to enter without a warrant.

The Court didn't answer the specific question of whether an emergency situation existed in the incident involving Hollis King. That, they said, was for the Kentucky Supreme Court to decide. All the Supreme Court did was lay out the rules regarding warrantless searches. So King still has a chance to challenge his conviction.

Justice Ginsburg, the lone dissenting vote, said that the Court's ruling gives police the means to circumvent the Fourth Amendment's requirement to obtain a warrant in drug cases. “How ‘secure’ do our homes remain," she asked, "if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and, on hearing sounds indicative of things moving, forcibly enter and search for evidence of unlawful activity?”

If you have questions about this case, or other aspects of search and seizure, call me at (916) 442-1200 for a free and confidential consultation.