Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Warrantless Invasion & Search of Home due to Marijuana Odor

In an 8-1 ruling, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the smell of marijuana smoke and the sound of drug evidence being destroyed were sufficient grounds for police to bust down an apartment door and search the home without a warrant.

(Photo: Rob Crawley)

The case, Kentucky v. King, involved Lexington, Kentucky police officers who chased a suspected drug dealer into an apartment complex. The officers stopped at the door of an apartment where they believed the suspect to be hiding. They knocked on the door and announced their presence, smelling marijuana inside and hearing what they thought to be the destruction of evidence.

The officers kicked down the door to the apartment and entered. It was the wrong unit. But they did see marijuana and cocaine in plain view.

They found the suspect they were after in a different apartment.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that under exigent-circumstances rules, which were defined in United States v. McConney as emergency conditions “that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of a suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts,” the officers ought to have known that their announced presence would cause the apartment’s occupants to destroy any evidence. The state supreme court ruling declared that the officers couldn’t “deliberately create the exigent circumstances with the bad faith intent to avoid the warrant requirement.”

But the US Supreme Court ruled that the police did not act in bad faith and that the marijuana odor and the noises were enough to establish that evidence was being destroyed.

“Where, as here, the police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment, warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote on behalf of the 8-1 majority. “Because the officers in this case did not violate or threaten to violate the Fourth Amendment prior to the exigency, we hold that the exigency justified the warrantless search of the apartment.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter. “The court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases,” she wrote. “In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”


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One Comment

  1. WakakoMay 17, 2011 at 10:49 amReply

    What will the Supreme Court allow next…I can hardly wait.

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