Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Supreme Court: Justices Give Police More Leeway in Home Searches

Officers may break in if they hear sounds and suspect that evidence is being destroyed, the justices say in an 8-1 decision. Justice Ginsburg dissents.

The Supreme Court gave police more leeway to break into homes or apartments in search of illegal drugs when they suspect the evidence otherwise might be destroyed. 

Ruling in a Kentucky case Monday, the justices said that officers who smell marijuana and loudly knock on the door may break in if they hear sounds that suggest the residents are scurrying to hide the drugs.     

Residents who "attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame" when police burst in, said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for an 8-1 majority. 

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she feared the ruling gave police an easy way to ignore 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. She said the amendment's "core requirement" is that officers have probable cause and a search warrant before they break into a house.  "How 'secure' do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and …forcibly enter?" Ginsburg asked. 

An expert on criminal searches said the decision would encourage the police to undertake "knock and talk" raids.  "I'm surprised the Supreme Court would condone this, that if the police hear suspicious noises inside, they can break in. I'm even more surprised that nearly all of them went along," said John Wesley Hall, a criminal defense lawyer in Little Rock, Ark. 

In the past, the court has insisted that homes are special preserves. As Alito said, "The 4th Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house." One exception to the search warrant rule involves an emergency, such as screams coming from a house. Police may also pursue a fleeing suspect who enters a residence.