On May 16, 2011, the United States Supreme Court officially ruled on an exigent circumstances case brought forth in Kentucky v. King. The Court held that, “The exigent circumstances rule applies when the police do not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment.”
The Lexington, KY Police Department set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine outside of an apartment complex. As officers moved in to arrest the drug suspect, he moved quickly into a breezeway and disappeared into one of two apartments within. The officers moved to the door on the left, from which they could smell marijuana smoke emanating, and began knocking and announcing, “Police!”
It is important to note that in the announce, the police did not “demand entry” or make any other Fourth Amendment references. This would prove crucial in the U.S. Supreme Court’s examination of the facts.
The officers could “hear people inside moving” and “things…being moved around in the apartment.” Fearing the destruction of drug evidence, the officers entered the apartment, under exigent circumstances, and found respondent Hollis King, his girlfriend, and a guest inside. The guest was smoking marijuana. None was the controlled buy suspect.
During a protective sweep, more marijuana and crack cocaine were seen in plain view. Searching further, crack cocaine, narcotics paraphernalia, and cash were recovered. Police later found their original drug suspect in the apartment on the right side of the breezeway.
Hollis King was charged with trafficking in marijuana, trafficking in a controlled substance, and persistent felony offender status. A motion to suppress the evidence was filed, but was denied in a Kentucky Circuit Court and then in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
In both the Kentucky Circuit and Appeals Courts, the police officers’ actions were upheld as proper under the exigent circumstances rule.
The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed, and suppressed the evidence in the case, ruling that “it was reasonably foreseeable that the occupants would destroy the evidence when the police knocked on the door and announced their presence” which itself created the exigency.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to overturn the Kentucky suppression. Justice Ginsburg was the sole dissenting opinion. In the Opinion of the Court, written by Justice Alito, it affirmed three areas of exigency that permit a warrantless entry into a home. While the Court only touched on “emergency aid” and “hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect,” at issue in Kentucky v. King is the exception “to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.”
Justice Alito wrote that lower courts have imposed further requirements to the exigent circumstances rule. The U. S. Supreme Court rejects those restrictions. Simply listed, they are: “bad” faith, reasonable foreseeability, probable cause and time to secure a warrant, and standard or good investigative tactics. In each of these requirements, lower courts have added upon law enforcement additional legal burdens that are not recognized by the Supreme Court with regard to exigent circumstances.
Quoting Graham v. Conner, the Court cited “the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Court articulated that in Kentucky v. King, the exigency of the possible destruction of evidence did exist and that it was not created by the officers’ knock and announce at the door. The ruling was reversed and remanded for further proceeding in Kentucky.
It is interesting that this type of Fourth Amendment judgment was so overwhelmingly supported by seven of the Justices. I find it refreshing that it seems to hold accountable the actions of the suspects, in refusing to answer the door, for directly contributing to the circumstances that brought about a lawful warrantless entry.
Randall is a twenty-three year sworn police officer in a mid-sized Florida police department. He has been an FTO, K9 Handler, Detective and SWAT Team Leader. He is currently the Midnight Shift K9 Sergeant and department SWAT Coordinator.