Richards v. Wisconsin (1997)

Supreme Court of the United States

Steiney Richards v. Wisconsin 

Decided April 28, 1997 – 520 U.S. 385


Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the [unanimous] Court.

In Wilson v. Arkansas, we held that the Fourth Amendment incorporates the common law requirement that police officers entering a dwelling must knock on the door and announce their identity and purpose before attempting forcible entry. At the same time, we recognized that the “flexible requirement of reasonableness should not be read to mandate a rigid rule of announcement that ignores countervailing law enforcement interests,” and left “to the lower courts the task of determining the circumstances under which an unannounced entry is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” 

In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that police officers are never required to knock and announce their presence when executing a search warrant in a felony drug investigation. In so doing, it reaffirmed a pre-Wilson holding and concluded that Wilson did not preclude this per se rule. We disagree with the court’s conclusion that the Fourth Amendment permits a blanket exception to the knock-and-announce requirement for this entire category of criminal activity. But because the evidence presented to support the officers’ actions in this case establishes that the decision not to knock and announce was a reasonable one under the circumstances, we affirm the judgment of the Wisconsin court.


On December 31, 1991, police officers in Madison, Wisconsin, obtained a warrant to search Steiney Richards’ motel room for drugs and related paraphernalia. The search warrant was the culmination of an investigation that had uncovered substantial evidence that Richards was one of several individuals dealing drugs out of motel rooms in Madison. The police requested a warrant that would have given advance authorization for a “no-knock” entry into the motel room, but the Magistrate explicitly deleted those portions of the warrant. 

The officers arrived at the motel room at 3:40 a.m. Officer Pharo, dressed as a maintenance man, led the team. With him were several plainclothes officers and at least one man in uniform. Officer Pharo knocked on Richards’ door and, responding to the query from inside the room, stated that he was a maintenance man. With the chain still on the door, Richards cracked it open. Although there is some dispute as to what occurred next, Richards acknowledges that when he opened the door he saw the man in uniform standing behind Officer Pharo. He quickly slammed the door closed and, after waiting two or three seconds, the officers began kicking and ramming the door to gain entry to the locked room. At trial, the officers testified that they identified themselves as police while they were kicking the door in. When they finally did break into the room, the officers caught Richards trying to escape through the window. They also found cash and cocaine hidden in plastic bags above the bathroom ceiling tiles.

Richards sought to have the evidence from his motel room suppressed on the ground that the officers had failed to knock and announce their presence prior to forcing entry into the room. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the officers could gather from Richards’ strange behavior when they first sought entry that he knew they were police officers and that he might try to destroy evidence or to escape. The judge emphasized that the easily disposable nature of the drugs the police were searching for further justified their decision to identify themselves as they crossed the threshold instead of announcing their presence before seeking entry. Richards appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and that court affirmed. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court did not delve into the events underlying Richards’ arrest in any detail, but accepted the following facts: “[O]n December 31, 1991, police executed a search warrant for the motel room of the defendant seeking evidence of the felonious crime of Possession with Intent to Deliver a Controlled Substance in violation of Wis. Stat. § 161.41(1m) (1991-92). They did not knock and announce prior to their entry. Drugs were seized.” 


We recognized in Wilson that the knock-and-announce requirement could give way “under circumstances presenting a threat of physical violence,” or “where police officers have reason to believe that evidence would likely be destroyed if advance notice were given.” It is indisputable that felony drug investigations may frequently involve both of these circumstances. The question we must resolve is whether this fact justifies dispensing with case-by-case evaluation of the manner in which a search was executed. 

The Wisconsin court explained its blanket exception as necessitated by the special circumstances of today’s drug culture, and the State asserted at oral argument that the blanket exception was reasonable in “felony drug cases because of the convergence in a violent and dangerous form of commerce of weapons and the destruction of drugs.” But creating exceptions to the knock-and-announce rule based on the “culture” surrounding a general category of criminal behavior presents at least two serious concerns. 

First, the exception contains considerable overgeneralization. For example, while drug investigation frequently does pose special risks to officer safety and the preservation of evidence, not every drug investigation will pose these risks to a substantial degree. For example, a search could be conducted at a time when the only individuals present in a residence have no connection with the drug activity and thus will be unlikely to threaten officers or destroy evidence. Or the police could know that the drugs being searched for were of a type or in a location that made them impossible to destroy quickly. In those situations, the asserted governmental interests in preserving evidence and maintaining safety may not outweigh the individual privacy interests intruded upon by a no-knock entry. Wisconsin’s blanket rule impermissibly insulates these cases from judicial review.

A second difficulty with permitting a criminal-category exception to the knock-and-announce requirement is that the reasons for creating an exception in one category can, relatively easily, be applied to others. Armed bank robbers, for example, are, by definition, likely to have weapons, and the fruits of their crime may be destroyed without too much difficulty. If a per se exception were allowed for each category of criminal investigation that included a considerable—albeit hypothetical—risk of danger to officers or destruction of evidence, the knock-and-announce element of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement would be meaningless.

Thus, the fact that felony drug investigations may frequently present circumstances warranting a no-knock entry cannot remove from the neutral scrutiny of a reviewing court the reasonableness of the police decision not to knock and announce in a particular case. Instead, in each case, it is the duty of a court confronted with the question to determine whether the facts and circumstances of the particular entry justified dispensing with the knock-and-announce requirement.

In order to justify a “no-knock” entry, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime by, for example, allowing the destruction of evidence. This standard—as opposed to a probable-cause requirement—strikes the appropriate balance between the legitimate law enforcement concerns at issue in the execution of search warrants and the individual privacy interests affected by no-knock entries. This showing is not high, but the police should be required to make it whenever the reasonableness of a no-knock entry is challenged.


Although we reject the Wisconsin court’s blanket exception to the knock-and-announce requirement, we conclude that the officers’ no-knock entry into Richards’ motel room did not violate the Fourth Amendment. We agree with the trial court that the circumstances in this case show that the officers had a reasonable suspicion that Richards might destroy evidence if given further opportunity to do so.


Notes, Comments, and Questions

When police “knock and announce,” they are often not obligated to wait very long before forcing entry. In United States v. Banks, 540 U.S. 31 (2003), the Court found that a “15-to-20-second wait before a forcible entry” was justified by the circumstances, and federal courts have approved even shorter wait times.34 Short wait times are especially likely to be deemed reasonable if officers are searching for drugs and hear no response after knocking and announcing. The necessary time officers must wait before “reasonably” breaking a door varies depending on factors such as what police seek, the anticipated dangerousness of persons likely to be on the premises, and how persons react to the arrival of officers.

The 2017 news that federal agents conducted a no-knock raid against Paul Manafort, the former presidential campaign manager for Donald Trump, inspired new interest in the phenomenon of no-knock entries and the breaking of doors by police. Although some commentators suggested that such raids are unusual, it would have been more accurate to say that such raids are unusual for suspects like Paul Manafort. In drug cases, no-knock raids are not unusual at all.35

Students interested in what happens when police execute warrants, particularly without knocking and announcing, may appreciate Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop (2013).  Balko observed:

Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than one hundred times per day. The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes.36 In many cities, police departments have given up the traditional blue uniforms for “battle dress uniforms” modeled after soldier attire. Police departments across the country now sport armored personnel carriers designed for use on a battlefield. … They carry military-grade weapons. Most of this equipment comes from the military itself. Many SWAT teams today are trained by current and former personnel from special forces units.37

Balko notes also that despite the Supreme Court’s guidance concerning no-knock raids—that is, holdings that the Fourth Amendment limits the use of such tactics—“the police officers interviewed for this book unanimously told me that beginning in about the mid-1980s, judges almost never denied their requests for a search warrant” and that “knock-and-announce requests were never a problem.”38

In March 2020, no-knock warrants gained national attention after police in Louisville, Kentucky shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician. Police entered her apartment soon after midnight on March 13, under authority of a no-knock warrant issued by a judge. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, said later that when police entered, he and Taylor believed they were victims of a burglary and did not know that the persons entering their home were police officers. Officers said later that they did knock and announce. After police entered, Walker shot at the officers, hitting one in the leg. Police fired back, killing Taylor. She was shot at least eight times. The warrant had been issued as part of an investigation into drug sales. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment. Taylor’s death was one of several—including the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis—that inspired nationwide protests. Louisville officials announced new policies relating to no-knock warrants in the wake of protests. In addition, some have argued that under existing law set forth in Wilson and Richards, the no-knock warrant in Taylor’s case was not lawfully issued.  (In August 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that four officers involved in executing the warrant at Taylor’s residence would face criminal charges for violating her civil rights, use of excessive force, and obstructing justice by creating a false cover story about the events that led to Taylor’s death).

If mere presence during the execution of a search warrant does not justify the search of a person, it follows that mere presence surely does not justify arresting everyone present. To reinforce this message, the Legal Bureau of the New York Police Department issued a bulletin in 2013 to this effect.39 In response to the question, “May a police officer arrest all persons found in a location during the execution of a search warrant?,” the bulletin answered, “No. An individual’s mere presence in a search location does not establish probable cause to arrest.”

Note that while police may detain persons present at the location to be searched, they may not detain persons who happened to be at the location earlier but have already left before police arrive to execute the warrant. In Bailey v. United States, 568 U.S. 186 (2013), the Court held that the rule of Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981) applies only to those in “the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched.” The Court explained, “Because detention is justified by the interests in executing a safe and efficient search, the decision to detain must be acted upon at the scene of the search and not at a later time in a more remote place.” In Bailey, officers had followed two men 0.7 miles after seeing them leave the building officers had been about to search. The Court found the detention unreasonable. In a dissent, Justice Breyer complained that “immediate vicinity” was not defined by the majority.

Notes, Comments, and Questions

One issue is the question of when a warrant goes “stale.” A warrant based upon probable cause to believe that contraband or suspects will be found in a certain place becomes less reliable over time. To pick an extreme example, if police receive a warrant in 2018 to search a particular house for a suspect, news that the suspect died in 2019 would make it unreasonable for police to execute the warrant in 2021. Actual cases will present closer questions. For example, a warrant to search for drugs recently delivered to the house of a dealer might go stale relatively quickly because the dealer is likely to sell the drugs soon. By contrast, courts have found that collectors of child pornography rarely destroy their material, meaning that warrants to search their computers for illicit images do not go stale. Similarly, a warrant to search an accountant’s office for documents proving a client’s tax fraud would probably remain “fresh” for a long time.

A 2010 raid on a Columbia, Missouri home illustrates the issue. Police had an eight-day-old warrant to search the house of Jonathan Whitworth for drugs. The raid went poorly, and officers shot two dogs, killing one. Officers pointed guns at Whitworth’s wife and her seven-year-old daughter. While some contraband was found, police did not discover evidence of significant drug dealing.40 Whitworth and his family sued the police, alleging among other things that the warrant was stale when executed. Although the court dismissed the lawsuit, Columbia police adopted new policies in response to outcry over the incident.41 (A video of the raid—which is unpleasant to watch—is available online:


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