Fourth Amendment: Exigent Circumstances

Acting on information received from undercover police officers, uniformed Kentucky police pursued a fleeing drug suspect into an apartment breezeway.  According to the police testimony, the pursuing officers heard a door shut as they ran into the breezeway, saw two apartments (one on the right, one on the left), and detected a strong marijuana odor coming from the left-hand apartment.  The officers banged on the door of the left-hand apartment and announced themselves as police.  Through the closed door, the officers heard objects being moved around in the house. Believing that drug-related evidence was about to be destroyed, the officers kicked in the door, entered the apartment, and found respondent Hollis King, along with drugs and drug paraphernalia.  (It was ultimately discovered that the original fleeing drug suspect had entered the right-hand apartment.)  The state trial court denied King’s motion to suppress evidence, determining that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry.  The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of Kentucky, however, reversed.  Using a two-part test to determine whether the police impermissibly created the exigent circumstances, the court held that exigent circumstances did not justify the warrantless search because it was reasonably foreseeable that the police conduct would create the exigent circumstances.

In Kentucky v. King(09-1272), an 8-1 majority reversed, holding that, where police do not violate the Fourth Amendment (or threaten a violation) in their preceding conduct, warrantless entry of a home to prevent destruction of evidence is reasonable and therefore permissible under the Fourth Amendment.  In delivering the majority opinion, Justice Alito acknowledged that, although preventing the destruction of evidence is within the scope of the “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, police-created exigencies do not justify a warrantless search.   The Court held, however, that “reasonableness” – not the tests elaborated by Kentucky’s Supreme Court and other lower courts – is the standard for determining whether the police-created exigencies doctrine is applicable.  Stating that “the Fourth Amendment requires only that the steps preceding the seizure be lawful,” the Court held that there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment in the police conduct.  Justice Alito argued that occupants who elect to destroy evidence – rather than refusing entry or electing not to respond – create the exigent circumstances that justify a warrantless search.  Justice Ginsburg dissented, arguing that the Court had reduced the Fourth Amendment’s force by providing officers with a way to dishonor the warrant requirement.