when can the police kick in your front door?

A Supreme Court case, Kentucky v. King, recently made headlines for allowing warrantless searches of people’s homes. The reporting was a bit overblown. The decision was well supported by precedent, was consistent with the Constitution and did not change anybody’s rights.

In the King case, an undercover police officer in Kentucky observed a sale of cocaine. The officer radioed some uniformed officers, so they could arrest the suspect. The officers arrived quickly and followed the suspect into an apartment building. With the suspect just out of sight, they heard a door shut down a hallway. They found only two apartment doors in the hallway. They smelled marijuana and could tell that the smell was coming from the apartment on the left. They knocked loudly on the door of that apartment and yelled, “This is the police.” They immediately heard people and things inside the apartment moving around. Based on their belief that evidence was about to be destroyed, they yelled that they were coming in, kicked the door down and entered the apartment. They found marijuana and cocaine inside; however, they later discovered that the person they had been following had actually entered the apartment on the right. When the state prosecuted the people in the apartment on the left for possession, the defendants argued that the search was unconstitutional.

The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Supreme Court has held that as a general rule, the police must have a search warrant to enter someone’s residence. However, based on the word “unreasonable” in the text of the Fourth Amendment, there are some exceptions to the general rule. One common example is consent; the police do not need a warrant if an occupant of the residence consents to a search.

The exception at issue in this case was the imminent destruction of evidence exception. The court had held in the past that the police could forcibly enter a residence without a warrant if a reasonable officer would have concluded that entry was necessary to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence of a crime.

The defendants argued that even if the officers’ conclusion about the destruction of evidence was reasonable, the search was still unconstitutional because the police created the circumstances that led to the reasonable conclusion. In other words, the police would never have heard any movement if they had not knocked loudly on the door and yelled “police.” For that reason, they should not be allowed to rely on circumstances produced by their own conduct to avoid the warrant requirement.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument. The critical question for the court was whether the police violated, or threatened to violate, the Fourth Amendment prior to hearing the movement inside the apartment (the point when they had enough information to reasonably conclude that evidence was about to be destroyed). The answer was no. The police did nothing more than any normal citizen would have been entitled to do. Anyone can knock on another person’s door and announce who they are. The people inside can choose whether to answer the door. If the people inside had done nothing, the police would not have been able to forcibly enter.

As for yelling, “police,” the police should be encouraged to inform residents who is knocking. That way, residents can make better informed decisions about whether to answer. The court strongly implied that the case would have been different if the police had initially yelled, “This is the police; open up or we’ll break the door down.” That would have been a threat to violate the Fourth Amendment, and the police would not have been able to rely on any circumstances created by that threat in order to justify entering the apartment without a warrant.

In short, the King case changed nothing. Police officers still need search warrants to enter your home unless you panic and run around trying to hide your weed when they knock on your door.

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11 Responses to when can the police kick in your front door?

  1. villagebear says:

  2. JAS says:

    Ok, you write that the residents can decide whether or not to answer the door after the police announce themselves. What if the police had indeed knocked on the correct door and the person they were looking for was inside the apartment. If the residents decide not to answer the door, and the police don’t have a specific reason to knock the door down, are the residents obstructing justice by refusing to answer the door?

  3. Jeremy says:

    So the moral of the story is…when the police knock on your door while you’re smoking pot, don’t try to hide (oh, and don’t let them in, either).

  4. Suszek says:

    It’s a complicated question, but the answer is probably. First, it’s important to note that the people in the apartment on the left committed a crime whether the police busted in or not. The problem for the police was that, if entering the apartment was illegal, none of the evidence they obtained after they entered could be used to convict the residents.

    It is a crime to knowingly hide a criminal from the police (it depends on the state, but most would call this crime being an accomplice after the fact, which means that the accomplice could be convicted of whatever crime the primary criminal committed). So, whether the residents would be guilty would depend on what the residents knew. If the residents did not see any drugs on the guy who came in and he did not say anything about the crime, they would have had a right to ignore the police knocking on their door. If the police had busted in without a reasonable suspicion that evidence was about to be destroyed, the police would not then be able to use the evidence against the residents of the apartment.

    The story would be different if the guy ran in and yelled, “I just bought some crack, and the police are chasing me. Hide me!” In that case, ignoring the police knocking on the door would be a crime. However, it would still be difficult for the prosecutor to prove that crime if the police busted in. The bust-in would be unconstitutional, so no evidence found after that could be used against the residents. The prosecutor would have to prove a) that the residents were aware of the crime and b) that they heard the knocking and decided not to open the door. Those two things would be difficult (although possible) to prove.

    So, it is a crime to knowingly hide a criminal from the police. However, that still does not give the police a right to enter without a warrant. In other words, if the owner of a house has a clear conscience, she can sit calmly on her constitutional rights. Otherwise, she needs to hope that the police can’t prove their case against her.

  5. Keri says:

    Interesting case. I bet that sort of “mistake” happens all the time. Something quite similar happened to Clay one time. The police got a tip about drugs at his apartment building. They mistakenly busted into Clay’s apartment and searched it. Then they realized that it was the wrong place, but not before finding some “green train” (HA!!!). It was such a small amount that they let him off the hook though, since they were at the wrong apartment anyway.

    Anyway, that sort of thing must happen a lot. Interesting that the Supreme Court has now weighed in on it.

  6. Suszek says:

    That is interesting. It sounds as though, in that case, Clay’s constitutional rights were violated. One of the flaws in the system is that the only penalty that the police faces for violating the 4th Amendment is that they can’t used evidence found thereafter to convict someone. In Clay’s case “letting him off with a warning” may have been a tacit admission that the search was unconstitutional and they couldn’t hold him accountable anyway.

    Now, if the police had found the purple train, it might have been a different story.

  7. Jimbo says:

    Sometimes the officers will let someone break and enter into your house to get you out of the house all leading to a nice little m.i.p haha

  8. Suszek says:

    Yeah, the police do not always necessarily follow the rules.

  9. Pingback: When can the police kick in your front door? |

  10. If a neighbor calls the police and says that their neighbors were arguing and “heard” a girl say that she would call the Police, can the police break down the door without a warrant? and when they break down the door if they find “the green train” there, can they press charges on someone who doesnt even live in the apartment?

  11. Suszek says:

    Well, that is a complicated question. It really depends on how exactly everything happened, and what the police knew and did not know. The Constitution protects everyone from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” So, a decent way of looking at these situations is that if it seems unreasonable, there is a decent chance that it is unconstitutional. But you do have to think about what looks reasonable based on the information the police officer has at the time.

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