ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The Supreme Court today made it much easier for police to force their way into a home without a warrant.
By an eight-to-one vote, the court upheld the warrantless search of an apartment. In the case, police had burst in after smelling marijuana, worried that those inside were destroying incriminating evidence. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: The Constitution bars warrantless searches except in certain circumstances, for example when police fear that evidence of a crime is being destroyed. The question in today's case was whether police, by themselves creating such emergency circumstances, unconstitutionally evade the warrant requirement.
The case came from Lexington, Kentucky, where police pursuing a drug suspect banged on the door of an apartment where they thought they smelled marijuana.
After loudly identifying themselves, police heard movement inside and, suspecting that evidence was being destroyed, kicked in the door. Inside, they found Hollis Deshaun King smoking marijuana, and they found cocaine, too.
King was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the drugs found in the apartment could not be used as evidence because the only emergency circumstances were those created by the police loudly alerting those inside.
The state court said that instead of banging on the door and letting the inhabitants know they were there, police should have requested a warrant, a procedure that usually takes only a matter of minutes.
But today, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. By an eight-to-one vote, the justices said that the Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches, and here the police acted reasonably.
Writing for the court majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that when occupants respond to a police knock on the door, they are not required to grant police permission to enter their homes, but he said if there is no response, and police hear movement inside that suggests destruction of evidence, they're justified in breaking in.
Criminal law experts said today's ruling will undoubtedly lead to more warrantless searches like this one. George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg is author of a leading text on criminal law.
Professor STEPHEN SALTZBURG (George Washington University): In practice, it means that whenever the police have suspicion that there's drug activity going on in a particular apartment or house, and they knock, and they hear movement inside and any reasonable delay in opening the door, they are going to break it in.
TOTENBERG: Saltzburg says the decision does resolve conflicting decisions in the lower courts.
Mr. SALTZBURG: It provides greater clarity to the police as to what they are permitted to do, and it provides less protection for homes and apartments than a lot of people thought they had.
TOTENBERG: Philip Heymann, former head of the U.S. Justice Department's Criminal Division and now a professor at Harvard Law School, says the standard laid out today will be very tempting for law enforcement officers, namely allowing police to break in and search without a warrant when they knock on the door and hear sounds suggesting destruction of evidence.
Professor PHILIP HEYMANN (Harvard Law School): That is a very fuzzy, indeterminate, easily faked - if the policeman wants to - test, when drugs have afterwards been found.
TOTENBERG: And that, says University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt, will mean a different set of police imperatives.
Professor BERNARD HARCOURT (University of Chicago): Once there is probable cause, this point, the police no longer need to kind of stop and think about whether they should get a warrant.
TOTENBERG: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone dissenter from today's court ruling, accused the majority of arming the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement in drug cases.
Instead of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, she said, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.