Sunday, June 18, 2006

Supreme Court allow no-knock searches

Justices allow no-knock searches
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Drugs or other evidence seized at a home can be used in a trial even if police failed to knock and announce their presence, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a major shift in its rulings on illegal searches by police.

The 5-4 decision in a Detroit drug case undercuts a nearly century-old rule that says evidence found during an unlawful search cannot be used. The decision also offers a sign that the court might be more apt to strengthen the hand of police with Justice Samuel Alito in the place of retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

O'Connor, who was on the court when the case was first argued, had worried about "the sanctity of the home."

Alito sided fully with Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion, which emphasized that tossing out evidence acquired in violation of the knock-and-announce rule — but with a valid warrant — could mean "releasing dangerous criminals."

In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer called the decision "doubly troubling."

"It represents a significant departure from the court's precedents," he wrote, joined by John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "It weakens, perhaps destroys, much of the practical value of the Constitution's knock-and-announce protection."

The rule is based on a centuries-old idea of home privacy and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. It requires police to knock, announce themselves and wait a "reasonable" time, which justices noted can be about 20 seconds, before entering. The practice shields occupants from surprise and property damage.

In the Detroit case, officers had a warrant to search for drugs and firearms in the home of Booker Hudson. They called out their presence and, after three to five seconds, entered through an unlocked front door.

Hudson tried unsuccessfully to suppress the evidence — rocks of cocaine — that police found and was convicted of drug possession. In an appeal, he argued that unless tainted evidence is suppressed, police will not be deterred from barging into homes. O'Connor was sympathetic to the view at January arguments.

After she retired, the eight remaining justices apparently were deadlocked. The case was re-argued in May with Alito on the court. His vote gave Scalia the majority. Joining them were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.

Kennedy noted that he didn't agree with a section of Scalia's decision that would have more broadly weakened the rule requiring evidence from an improper search to be kept out, depriving Scalia of the necessary fifth vote to further curtail the Fourth Amendment.

Regarding the no-knock rule, Kennedy agreed with Scalia that police are sufficiently deterred from improper searches by the right of occupants to sue under civil rights law. Breyer countered that such lawsuits are rare and often do not bring much relief for victims.

Critics said the decision could lead to an increase in no-knock police raids. Jack King, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, "The only sanction that police really care about is if the evidence is thrown out."

Tim Richardson, a senior legislative liaison for the Fraternal Order of Police, rejected the idea that police would change their practices. "There's a new professionalism among law enforcement officers. They want to have clean, successful, swift prosecutions."

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