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.