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U.S. Supreme Court sides with police in warrantless search

Posted on in Dealing with the Police

The high court ruled Monday in an 8 to 1 decision that the police acted lawfully under exigent circumstances. The case arose in 2005 after law enforcement conducted an undercover sting operation. A person allegedly sold crack cocaine to a police informant. The suspect reportedly entered an apartment building after the alleged sale.

Police entered the building, but were unable to determine which apartment the suspect entered. They combed the halls of the apartment building until they say they smelled the odor of marijuana coming from one of the unit.

Police pounded on the door and announced their presence loudly. They then listened at the door. Police claim they heard people moving inside the locked apartment. The police announced their intent to enter the apartment and broke down the door.

Police found a different man inside the apartment than the man allegedly involved in the sale of crack cocaine outside. Police say the man they found was smoking marijuana inside the apartment. Police also found cocaine and placed the man under arrest. He later was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

The case originated in Kentucky, where the Supreme Court of that state overturned the conviction. The state's highest court ruled that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searched. The state high court ruling found the entry unconstitutional because the police had created the emergency by pounding o the door.

The U.S. Supreme court disagreed. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote that residents who "attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame" when police make an entry in an emergency situation. An exception to Fourth Amendment protections arises when exigent circumstances exist, such as screams arising from inside a residence, or when police follow a suspect of an alleged crime into a residence in "hot pursuit."

In this case, police entered the wrong apartment. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for the state court to determine whether an emergency existed at the time of the entry, but ruled the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a warrantless entry in drug cases when exigent circumstances exist, such as the reasonable belief that evidence is being destroyed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stands alone in dissent. She says law enforcement "may not knock, listen and then break the door down" without violating the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Supreme Court gives police a new entryway into homes," David G. Savage 16 May 2011

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