May 16, 2011 3:14PM

Kentucky v. King

Awful ruling handed down by the Supreme Court this morning in a case called Kentucky v. King [pdf]. The case concerns the power to break into a person’s home without the occupant’s consent and without a warrant. Our homes are supposed to be our castles–so the general rule is that the police must get an independent judge to approve a warrant application before the door can be forced open. There are a few common sense exceptions to the general rule. For example, if someone is screaming for help, the police can enter. Also if the police are in hot pursuit, they can follow the suspect on to private property and into a home under such circumstances. Today’s ruling expands the exceptions to situations where the police suspect that the occupants of a house may be destroying contraband such as marijuana, cocaine, or other narcotics.

In this case, the police were after a drug dealer after he fled from a controlled‐​buy transaction. The dealer entered some apartment but the police were unsure of the unit number. As the police got closer, they could smell marijuana coming from a nearby apartment. Instead of posting an officer nearby and applying for a warrant, they decided to bang on the door, shouting “Police!” Hearing some rustling inside, the police broke down the door so evidence could not be destroyed. The occupants were arrested on drug charges and they later challenged the legality of the police entry and search. (As it happens, the dealer the police were trying to capture was found in another apartment.)

The lower courts have generally frowned on what they describe as exigencies manufactured by police conduct, but the Supreme Court has now overturned those lower court precedents by a 8–1 vote. In dissent, Justice Ginsburg asked the right question: “How ‘secure’ do our homes remain 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?” And the unfortunate answer to the question is, a lot less secure. 

For more on the power to search, go here and here.