WASHINGTON—A divided Supreme Court said Thursday that police with search warrants who barged into homes without knocking didn't risk having evidence they uncovered tossed out at trial, a ruling that civil liberties advocates called a major blow to privacy protections.
The 5-4 decision turns on a distinction drawn between how police enter a home and what they find once they're inside.
Yes, the so-called knock-and-announce rule is violated when police fail to announce their presence and wait a reasonable amount of time before entering someone's home. But no, that violation isn't sufficiently related to what they find during a search to justify banning drugs, guns or any other evidence that's uncovered from later criminal proceedings.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the increasing professionalism of police and the threat of civil suits was enough of a deterrent to keep officers from abusing their authority.
To exclude evidence from a trial merely because of an entry violation, the court said, would unnecessarily increase the risk of "grave, adverse" consequences, including the technical exoneration of guilty—and often dangerous—criminals.
The "jackpot" for criminals would be enormous, wrote Scalia, who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. He said the court essentially would be issuing "get-out-of-jail-free" cards if it indulged suppression of evidence based on an entry violation.
Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito went further, and seemed to question decades of precedents on the exclusionary rule, which calls for booting evidence when police break the law during a search. Kennedy didn't join that part of the opinion, however, and wrote a concurrence that said the exclusionary rule wasn't in jeopardy.
Justice Stephen Breyer penned a sharp dissent that accused the court of misreading its own precedents and defying "elementary logic." Compliance with knock-and-announce procedure is one way that the court judges the reasonableness of a search under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, he wrote. And the threat of losing valuable evidence for defying the rules is the "driving purpose" behind provisions such as the knock-and-announce requirement.
The court's ruling means that a Detroit man's conviction for drug possession stands, despite the fact that police rushed into his home without knocking. Once inside, they found crack cocaine in Booker Hudson's pockets.
Hudson's attorneys, relying on a line of court decisions over the last decade, said the officers' failure to knock and announce themselves before entering made the evidence they obtained the "fruit" of a "poisonous tree."
That idea is bedrock in Fourth Amendment law, which governs when and how government may search a citizen's home or person. It presumes, most of the time, that any illegal action during a search taints all the evidence that's turned up. It's the reason that confessions that come after a beating aren't any good and that an unreasonable search performed without a warrant can't help convict someone.
Scalia wrote, though, that "the interests protected by the knock-and-announce requirement are quite different." He said the rule was intended to protect police whose unannounced entry might trigger a self-defense instinct by a homeowner, to give citizens the chance to comply with requests for police access and to give homeowners time to "collect" themselves before answering the door.
Those interests don't extend to shielding relevant evidence from government eyes, he wrote.
Breyer said the court's opinion "weakens, perhaps destroys, much of the practical value of the Constitution's knock-and-announce protection." He said separating the manner of entry from the ensuing search "slices the violation too finely." He said the failure to knock and announce wasn't an independent event, but a "factor that renders the search constitutionally defective."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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