Recent Supreme Court decisions regarding search and seizure haven’t exactly signaled an unyielding reverence for our 4th Amendment rights, so I shudder to think how the Court will rule on this:
Kentucky police were following a man who had just sold drugs to an undercover informant. They entered an apartment breezeway, heard a door slam and found they had two choices.
Behind door No. 1 was the dealer. And, unfortunately for him, behind door No. 2 were Hollis King and friends, smoking marijuana.
Smelling the drug, the officers banged loudly on King’s apartment door and identified themselves as police. The officers said they heard a noise and feared evidence was being destroyed. They kicked down the door and found King, two friends, some drugs and cash. [Washington Post]
Home searches generally require a warrant, even when probable cause exists (the smell of marijuana), but officers claimed their fear that evidence would be destroyed constituted an "exigent circumstances" exception to the warrant requirement. Ironically, however, the presence of police became known to the suspects only because the officers knocked and announced themselves. If any effort was made to dispose of evidence, it was obviously triggered by the police, who could have waited for a warrant rather than initiating contact right then and there.
If the Supreme Court upholds this search, police will be encouraged to creatively interpret any noises heard within homes they’d like to search, and it’s hard to imagine what sorts of sounds couldn’t potentially be said to indicate possible destruction of evidence. Police who hear "sudden movements" after pounding on someone’s door can claim to be concerned about destruction of evidence, but who wouldn’t make a sudden movement if cops were shouting and banging on the door? Maybe I’m just putting on some pants. Maybe I’m hastily locking my dog in the bathroom so they won’t shoot its brains out. People are going to react when disturbed in their homes and it’s absurd to strip our 4th Amendment rights based on one of many possible explanations for the movements people make when you startle them.
Keep in mind, however, that this case involved a probable cause situation in which police did smell marijuana. Even the worst possible ruling still wouldn’t give police the authority to randomly knock on doors with no evidence and perform emergency searches based on suspicious reactions from the people inside. But if the Court continues chipping away at the 4th Amendment at its current pace, I can’t blame anyone for worrying that we’re headed in that direction. Fortunately, some of the justices expressed serious concerns about giving police more leeway to perform emergency searches. This one could go either way and we’ll be sure to keep you posted.