Kentucky v. King: Destruction of Evidence and Warrantless Searches

The Fourth Amendment requires that police obtain a warrant before entering a home though there are some exceptions. One exception involves a situation in which evidence of a crime is being destroyed. In the case of Kentucky v. King, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question of whether this rule applies when the police, by knocking on the door of a home and announcing their presence, cause the occupants to the destroy evidence in the first place.

The Court ruled that police may make a warrantless entry into a home where they have cause to believe that the occupants are engaged in the destruction of evidence, so long as the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment or threaten to do so prior to entry into the home.

This case arose in Lexington, Kentucky, where police officers set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine near an apartment complex. After the buy was completed the police moved in on the buyer but he moved too quickly and entered an apartment. Police officers converged on the apartment complex though could not discern which one of two apartments the buyer had entered. The scent of marijuana was coming from one of the apartments and the police knocked on that door and announced their presence.

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In trial court, the police testified that they heard the sounds of people and things being moved around inside the apartment. The police then entered the apartment, finding in plain view marijuana, cocaine, cash, and paraphernalia. The police later discovered the original suspect in the other apartment.

In Fayette County Circuit Court, King filed a motion to suppress the evidence from the warrantless search but was denied. The Circuit Court ruled that the sounds from inside the apartment indicated that evidence of a crime was being destroyed and therefore a warrantless entry was justified by exigent circumstances.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision. The Supreme Court of Kentucky reversed, reasoning that the police impermissibly created the basis for the exigent circumstances.

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The Fourth Amendment provides that individuals shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that no warrants shall be issued without probable cause.

A search of a home is presumptively unreasonable unless the search falls within a recognized exception. One such exception is where the so-called exigencies of a situation make the needs of the police so compelling that a warrantless search will be objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. An exigency is a circumstance that requires urgent action.

Examples of exigencies that permit warrantless entry of a home could be that a person inside is in need of emergency care, the police are in hot pursuit of a suspect, or as relevant to here, where there is the possibility of the imminent destruction of evidence.

The imminent destruction of evidence exigency creates the problem that the police may create a situation that will lead a suspect to attempt to destroy evidence, thus enabling the police to make a warrantless entry into a home. Lower courts responded to this reality by creating the police-created exigency doctrine, which provides that the police may not rely on the need to prevent the destruction of evidence when the exigency was created by the police in the first place. This doctrine exists in many forms throughout the lower courts, with tests such as whether the police acted in bad faith to circumvent the warrant or requirement or whether the police engaged in standard and accepted policing techniques. The Court in this case set out to establish a single rule for the situation.

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The Court articulated the new rule that the destruction of evidence as an exigent circumstance justifies a warrantless search when the conduct of the police preceding the exigency is reasonable, meaning that the police did not gain entry to the premises by means of an actual or threatened violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court reasoned that when a police officer knocks on door without a warrant, the officer is doing no more than any other citizen in that situation. The occupants of the home choose whether to address the person at the door. No response by the occupants mean the police reach a low point in the investigation. Occupants who choose to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for a warrantless entry that follows.

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Justice Ginsburg, as the lone dissenter, forcefully disagreed, writing that the majority’s decision arms the police with a simple way to circumvent the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases. The new rule, she wrote, will create a situation where police will knock on a suspect’s door and wait, as opposed to applying for a warrant to a magistrate. The Fourth Amendment was designed so that law enforcement officials would apply for warrants based on probable cause. Exceptions to the warrant requirement are to be carefully delineated and used only in emergency-type situations.

Most notably, the dissent pointed out that, “How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and, on hearing sounds indicative of things moving, forcibly enter and search for evidence of unlawful activity?”

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