WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a Kentucky man who was arrested after police burst into his apartment without a search warrant because they smelled marijuana and feared he was trying to get rid of incriminating evidence.
Voting 8-1, the justices reversed a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that threw out the evidence gathered when officers entered Hollis King’s apartment.
The court said there was no violation of King’s constitutional rights because the police acted reasonably. Only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
May police, who could pause to gain the approval of a neutral magistrate, dispense with the need to get a warrant by themselves creating exigent circumstances? I would answer no, as did the Kentucky Supreme Court. The urgency must exist, I would rule, when the police come on the scene, not subsequent to their arrival, prompted by their own conduct.
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?
Officers knocked on King’s door in Lexington and thought they heard noises that indicated whoever was inside was trying to get rid of incriminating evidence.
Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court that people have no obligation to respond to the knock or, if they do open the door, allow the police to come in. In those cases, officers who wanted to gain entry would have to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant.
But Alito said, “Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame.”
In her dissent, Ginsburg said her colleagues were giving police an easy way to routinely avoid getting warrants in drug cases.
“Police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant,” she said.
The case concerned exceptions to the Fourth Amendment requirement that police need a warrant to enter a home.
The issue was whether warrantless entry was justified after the officers’ knock on the door triggered a reaction inside that sounded like the destruction of evidence.
An odd set of facts led to Monday’s ruling.
Police were only at King’s apartment building because they were chasing a man who sold cocaine to a police informant. The man entered King’s building and ducked into an apartment. The officers heard a door slam in a hallway, but by the time they were able to look down it, they saw only two closed doors.
They didn’t know which one the suspect had gone through, but, smelling burnt pot, chose the apartment on the left.
In fact, the suspect had gone into the apartment on the right. Police eventually arrested him, too, but prosecutors later dropped charges against him for reasons that were not explained in court papers.
In other action Monday, the court refused to revive a lawsuit challenging a controversial post-Sept. 11 CIA program that flew terrorism suspects to secret prisons. The appeal asked the court to examine two much-disputed aspects of the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks, “the extraordinary rendition” program that sent the suspects to secret prisons and the “state secrets privilege.”
The high court has refused several other appeals based on the government’s invocation of state secrets to derail lawsuits.
The case involved five terrorism suspects who were arrested shortly after 9/11 and said they were flown by a Boeing Co. subsidiary to prisons around the world where they were tortured. A divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco cited national security risks in dismissing the men’s case last year.
The justices also turned aside a challenge from atheist Michael Newdow to the use of the words “so help me God” in the presidential oath of office.
In a case involving the federal whistleblower law, the justices voted 5-3 in ruling that information acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request cannot be used to trigger a False Claims Act lawsuit.