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US Supreme Court ruling could expand police power in drug busts

In January, we wrote a post which gave a brief lesson on search and seizure laws. Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, Americans are protected against illegal search and seizure by police and law enforcement.

This means that if police suspect you are guilty of a crime such as drug possession, they must first obtain a search warrant from a judge before they can enter your home and search for evidence. However, as we said in January, there are certain situations in which police are allowed to bypass a search warrant.

The US Supreme Court recently decided just such a case. The 8-1 ruling in favor of police may have set a precedent that makes it easier for authorities to enter and search a home without a warrant.

The case concerned a police sting operation in Kentucky. After police set up an undercover purchase of crack cocaine, they followed the drug dealer back to an apartment building. Police smelled marijuana inside the apartment but did not have a search warrant to enter.

Nonetheless, they knocked and identified themselves as police. When they heard people inside trying to quickly destroy evidence, police broke down the door and seized the drugs.

Police tried to justify their warrantless search under the "exigent circumstances rule." While the Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure, authorities are sometimes allowed to bypass a warrant if the circumstances of the situation make a warrantless search "reasonable."

The Kentucky Supreme Court originally ruled that the exigent circumstances rule did not apply and therefore the drug evidence obtained could not be used. However, the US Supreme Court overturned the ruling almost unanimously.

This ruling could set a dangerous precedent for similar situations involving drug busts in which police act without a warrant. The one dissenting Supreme Court Justice said it best when she wrote:

"The Court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement in drug cases . . . police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."

This decision could mark a step backward for the rights of all accused citizens.

Source: UPI.com, "Warrantless searches expanded in drug case," 16 May 2011

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