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.