Does the Supreme Court’s ruling on a warrantless search undermine the Fourth Amendment?
If the police showed up at your doorstep today, would you know your rights?
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you against unreasonable search and seizure – meaning you don’t have to let officers inside your home, unless they have a warrant. This was intended to preserve the home as an individual’s private space, and to keep law enforcement from overstepping its bounds.
The Fourth Amendment says that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” This means that, from your local police force all the way up to the FBI, if authorities suspect wrongdoing or illegal activity is happening behind closed doors, they must obtain a warrant to enter. Police must convince a judge that there is probable cause for a search warrant. As a general rule, they can’t just barge in. But there are exceptions.
For example, if police suspect an emergency situation inside – if they hear screams or a violent commotion – they can enter a home without a warrant. If a fleeing criminal suspect enters a building, pursuing officers don’t need a warrant to follow the suspect.
This week, the Supreme Court gave law enforcement even more leeway, ruling 8-1 in Kentucky v. King that police can enter a home without a warrant if they suspect evidence of a crime is being destroyed.
The case involved officers chasing a suspected drug dealer, who fled into an apartment complex. They followed him, but did not know which apartment he entered. They smelled marijuana coming from one unit, knocked on its door and announced themselves as police. When they heard movement and a flushing toilet inside, but nobody let them in, the officers feared their suspect was destroying evidence, so they broke in.
Turns out that they had the wrong apartment – but they arrested the occupant, Hollis King, for possession of marijuana and cocaine.
The Supreme Court justices resoundingly agreed that the police were in the right. In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for the warrantless … search that may ensue.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only member of the Supreme Court who disagreed; she wrote in her dissenting opinion that the ruling gives police an easy way to ignore the Fourth Amendment, by claiming to smell or hear something.
“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,” Ginsburg wrote. “How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and … forcibly enter?”
At the same time, critics point out, it’s not as if police now have the authority to roam the streets, breaking down doors willy-nilly and invading the homes of innocent citizens. Officers still need probable cause to justify acting without a warrant. And for the Supreme Court, in the circumstances of the King case, pursuit of a suspected drug dealer, the smell of marijuana and the sound of a commotion added up to probable cause.
What do you think?
Does the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kentucky v King undermine the Fourth Amendment? Should police be allowed to break into homes if they smell drugs or suspect evidence is being destroyed? Or should they still take the time to get a warrant? Do you think the Kentucky officers had probable cause to break into King’s house? Does it matter that King is not the person they were chasing? Join the discussion!
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