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Supreme Court Ruling Narrows Fourth Amendment Protection

The U.S. Constitution's 4th Amendment seems clear: "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."

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision turns that simple wording, piece by piece, inside out. Deciding the case of Kentucky v. King on May 16, 2011, the Court ruled 8 to 1 that the police's own judgment justifies a warrantless search, as opposed to needing a judicially-decided warrant, which has been the case since our nation's founding. The only justice dissenting, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affirmed that such a ruling effectively dismisses traditional Fourth Amendment protection.

The case began when Lexington, Kentucky police officers lost a suspect they followed after entering an apartment complex. Once in the building, they claimed they smelled marijuana coming from an unrelated apartment. They knocked on that door and announced themselves. Hearing furniture moving and assuming that might mean someone was destroying evidence, they burst through the door without a warrant or permission to enter.

Once inside they went through the rooms and found drugs in plain view, and more evidence with a closer search. One of those arrested pled guilty, reserving the right to appeal a ruling to allow the evidence from an arguably illegal search. The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed that decision, noting that the police announcing their presence before getting a warrant created the circumstances they claimed as a reason to kick in the door.

When the case finally made it to the Supreme Court, eight justices overturned the Kentucky decision, and - according to Justice Ginsburg - did not give the accused the proper protection of the Fourth Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, held that the apartment occupants should have exercised their 4th Amendment rights, and immediately refused officers admission until they had a warrant, instead of trying to destroy evidence.

While this decision does seem to be a blow to the right to privacy a U.S. citizen has in his or her own home, Constitutional protections remain. If you have been accused of a drug crime, contact a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights.

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