May 23, 1995 in Nation/World

Court Says Police Should Knock Before Coming In With Warrant But Justices Allow Exceptions, Then Fail To Spell Them Out

Aaron Epstein Knight-Ridder
 

For the first time, the Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer’s unannounced entry into someone’s home may be unconstitutional “in some circumstances.”

In a 9-0 decision Monday, the court concluded that, as a general rule, the police are required to knock and announce their identity and purpose before breaking down the doors of a dwelling to serve a search warrant.

The Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches and seizures. From now on, judges must consider the “knock-and-announce” principle in deciding whether a search was reasonable, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

Thomas didn’t spell out what circumstances would excuse police officers from making unannounced entries. He left that to the lower courts.

But he did note that lower courts have approved unannounced entries by police officers who faced physical violence, chased an escaped prisoner or had reason to believe evidence would be destroyed if they gave advance notice.

Most states and the federal government require the knock-andannounce rule to protect privacy, reduce the risk of violence, prevent destruction of property, and give innocent people a chance to correct police mistakes.

The justices were informed that only six states - Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland and New Jersey - do not impose a knock-and-announce requirement.

Still, the rule has become increasing controversial in recent years because of the heightened risk of violence and destruction of evidence in the war on drugs.

At least eight states have exempted drug raids from the knock-andannounce rule.

In a decision last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court announced that the rule is “no longer valid in today’s drug culture” because suspects are often armed and dangerous and can easily flush drugs down a toilet if they know police officers are outside.

The state Supreme Court, allowing no-knock raids when drug dealing is suspected, declared: “We will yield to the police officer’s discretion in choosing whether to follow the rule of announcement.”

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in an Arkansas case in which police, executing a search warrant for narcotics based on an informant’s tip, “just walked in” and searched the home of Sharlene Wilson in Malvern, Ark., on New Year’s Eve, 1992.

The police had reason to believe that Wilson might be armed. There was testimony that Wilson had waved a semiautomatic pistol in the informant’s face, threatening to kill her if she turned out to be working for the police.

Wilson’s lawyer sought to suppress drugs and a gun obtained in the search, partly on grounds that the police had failed to knock and announce themselves before entering her home.

The motion was denied. Wilson was convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to 31 years in prison.

Arkansas criminal rules allow police officers to make whatever entry is “reasonably necessary for the successful execution of the search warrant with all practicable safety.”

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

Thomas reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court. “We have little doubt,” Thomas wrote, “that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment thought that the method of an officer’s entry into a dwelling was among the factors to be considered in assessing the reasonableness of a search or seizure.”Related questions in other cases await answers. Among them: How long must police delay entry into a home? Can evidence found inside be used against the suspect even though the police improperly made an unannounced entry or broke into the home too quickly after knocking?


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