May 16, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Kentucky v. King

On May 16, the Supreme Court decided Kentucky v. King, No. 09-1272, holding that the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable search and seizures allows police to conduct a warrantless search of premises if they reasonably suspect that the occupants are destroying evidence.

The instant case arose from the search of an apartment in Lexington, Kentucky.  Police officers engaged in an undercover purchase of crack cocaine at an apartment complex, and then sought to apprehend the suspected drug dealer after the sale was completed.  During their search for the suspect, the police detected a strong odor of marijuana smoke emanating from an apartment, and they knocked and announced their presence.  The police then heard frantic movements inside the apartment, which they reasonably concluded were the destruction of evidence.  They entered the apartment and found three individuals, as well as marijuana, powder cocaine, and crack cocaine in plain view.  The suspected drug dealer who the police were pursuing was not in the apartment, but was found in an adjacent apartment.  The three occupants of the searched apartment challenged the constitutionality of the search.

The trial court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances justified the police's warrantless entry because the police reasonably believed that evidence would be destroyed if they delayed.  The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that because it was "reasonably foreseeable" that the occupants would destroy evidence when police knocked and announced their presence, the police created and manufactured the exigent circumstances through their own "investigative tactics," and the search was impermissible. 

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Kentucky Supreme Court's decision.  The Court reasoned that "the exigent circumstances rule justifies a warrantless search when the conduct of the police preceding the exigency is reasonable."  Because the police did not engage in, or threaten to engage in, conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment before entering the apartment, their actions were lawful.  The occupants, according to the Court, could have exercised their constitutional rights and refused to admit the officers, but instead they began unlawfully destroying evidence.  Thus, the occupants have "only themselves to blame" for the warrantless search that ensued. 

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion.

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