Supreme Court of the United States
Kentucky v. Hollis Deshaun King
Decided May 16, 2011 – 563 U.S. 452
Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.
It is well established that “exigent circumstances,” including the need to prevent the destruction of evidence, permit police officers to conduct an otherwise permissible search without first obtaining a warrant. In this case, we consider whether this rule applies when police, by knocking on the door of a residence and announcing their presence, cause the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. The Kentucky Supreme Court held that the exigent circumstances rule does not apply in the case at hand because the police should have foreseen that their conduct would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. We reject this interpretation of the exigent circumstances rule. The conduct of the police prior to their entry into the apartment was entirely lawful. They did not violate the Fourth Amendment or threaten to do so. In such a situation, the exigent circumstances rule applies.
This case concerns the search of an apartment in Lexington, Kentucky. Police officers set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine outside an apartment complex. Undercover Officer Gibbons watched the deal take place from an unmarked car in a nearby parking lot. After the deal occurred, Gibbons radioed uniformed officers to move in on the suspect. He told the officers that the suspect was moving quickly toward the breezeway of an apartment building, and he urged them to “hurry up and get there” before the suspect entered an apartment.
In response to the radio alert, the uniformed officers drove into the nearby parking lot, left their vehicles, and ran to the breezeway. Just as they entered the breezeway, they heard a door shut and detected a very strong odor of burnt marijuana. At the end of the breezeway, the officers saw two apartments, one on the left and one on the right, and they did not know which apartment the suspect had entered. Gibbons had radioed that the suspect was running into the apartment on the right, but the officers did not hear this statement because they had already left their vehicles. Because they smelled marijuana smoke emanating from the apartment on the left, they approached the door of that apartment.
Officer Steven Cobb, one of the uniformed officers who approached the door, testified that the officers banged on the left apartment door “as loud as [they] could” and announced, “‘This is the police’” or “‘Police, police, police.’” Cobb said that “[a]s soon as [the officers] started banging on the door,” they “could hear people inside moving,” and “[i]t sounded as [though] things were being moved inside the apartment.” These noises, Cobb testified, led the officers to believe that drug-related evidence was about to be destroyed.
At that point, the officers announced that they “were going to make entry inside the apartment.” Cobb then kicked in the door, the officers entered the apartment, and they found three people in the front room: respondent Hollis King, respondent’s girlfriend, and a guest who was smoking marijuana. The officers performed a protective sweep of the apartment during which they saw marijuana and powder cocaine in plain view. In a subsequent search, they also discovered crack cocaine, cash, and drug paraphernalia.
Police eventually entered the apartment on the right. Inside, they found the suspected drug dealer who was the initial target of their investigation.
Over the years, lower courts have developed an exception to the exigent circumstances rule, the so-called “police-created exigency” doctrine. Under this doctrine, police may not rely on the need to prevent destruction of evidence when that exigency was “created” or “manufactured” by the conduct of the police.
Despite the welter of tests devised by the lower courts, the answer to the question presented in this case follows directly and clearly from the principle that permits warrantless searches in the first place. As previously noted, warrantless searches are allowed when the circumstances make it reasonable, within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, to dispense with the warrant requirement. Therefore, the answer to the question before us is that the exigent circumstances rule justifies a warrantless search when the conduct of the police preceding the exigency is reasonable in the same sense. 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.
In this case, we see no evidence that the officers either violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so prior to the point when they entered the apartment. Officer Cobb testified without contradiction that the officers “banged on the door as loud as [they] could” and announced either “‘Police, police, police’” or “‘This is the police.’” This conduct was entirely consistent with the Fourth Amendment, and we are aware of no other evidence that might show that the officers either violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so (for example, by announcing that they would break down the door if the occupants did not open the door voluntarily).
Like the court below, we assume for purposes of argument that an exigency existed. 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.
The judgment of the Kentucky Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
Justice GINSBURG, dissenting.
The Court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases. 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. I dissent from the Court’s reduction of the Fourth Amendment’s force.
This case involves a principal exception to the warrant requirement, the exception applicable in “exigent circumstances.” “[C]arefully delineated,” the exception should govern only in genuine emergency situations. Circumstances qualify as “exigent” when there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury, or danger that evidence will be immediately destroyed, or that a suspect will escape. The question presented: 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.
That heavy burden has not been carried here. There was little risk that drug-related evidence would have been destroyed had the police delayed the search pending a magistrate’s authorization. As the Court recognizes, “[p]ersons in possession of valuable drugs are unlikely to destroy them unless they fear discovery by the police.” Nothing in the record shows that, prior to the knock at the apartment door, the occupants were apprehensive about police proximity.
In no quarter does the Fourth Amendment apply with greater force than in our homes, our most private space which, for centuries, has been regarded as “‘entitled to special protection.’” Home intrusions, the Court has said, are indeed “the chief evil against which … the Fourth Amendment is directed.” “‘[S]earches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are [therefore] presumptively unreasonable.’” 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?
Under an appropriately reined-in “emergency” or “exigent circumstances” exception, the result in this case should not be in doubt. The target of the investigation’s entry into the building, and the smell of marijuana seeping under the apartment door into the hallway, the Kentucky Supreme Court rightly determined, gave the police “probable cause … sufficient … to obtain a warrant to search the … apartment.” As that court observed, nothing made it impracticable for the police to post officers on the premises while proceeding to obtain a warrant authorizing their entry.
I  would not allow an expedient knock to override the warrant requirement. Instead, I would accord that core requirement of the Fourth Amendment full respect. When possible, “a warrant must generally be secured,” the Court acknowledges. There is every reason to conclude that securing a warrant was entirely feasible in this case, and no reason to contract the Fourth Amendment’s dominion.
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