Police-Created Exigent Circumstances Allowed in Kentucky v. King

In the recent case of Kentucky v. King, the Supreme Court ruled that police can create an emergency that allows them to enter someone’s home without a warrant.

Normally, the home has the highest level of protection available. Police cannot just enter and search because the Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” To enter and search a home, police must have a warrant, which is based upon probable cause. Probable cause requires more than just a hunch that the homeowner is, for example, selling drugs. Police must have a reasonable belief, supported by circumstantial evidence, that the homeowner committed a crime. They must then submit an affidavit stating the basis for their belief to a magistrate. If the magistrate accepts the reasoning, he or she will issue a search warrant that clearly states the scope of the search. Police cannot search the upstairs of a house when the warrant limits the scope to downstairs.

One exception to the scenario above is known as “exigent circumstances.” Under exigent circumstances doctrine, police do not need to obtain a warrant to enter a home as long as they have probable cause. Sometimes an emergency situation exists, requiring the police to enter immediately. The suspect might be on the verge of destroying the evidence, harming someone else, or escaping. Over the years, there has been some conflict over what is urgent enough to be “exigent circumstances.” Now the U.S. Supreme Court has held that police-created emergency situations fall under the exigent circumstances heading.

In Kentucky v. King, Lexington police officers followed a suspected drug dealer into an apartment building. Though they didn’t know which apartment the suspect had gone into, they smelled marijuana coming from one. After they knocked on the door and announced themselves, they heard shuffling noises. They opened the door and found the suspect with drugs and drug paraphernalia.

All of the justices joined the majority opinion except for Justice Ginsberg. They held that exigent circumstances applied even in police-created emergency situations because a police search needed only to be reasonable and based on probable cause. While a warrantless search was presumptively unreasonable, the presumption could be overcome when the “exigencies” of the situation made the needs of law enforcement compelling enough. The Court rejected the lower courts’ “police-created exigency” doctrines, which were created as an exception to the usual “exigent circumstances” rule. These doctrines placed too great a burden on police officers to behave in a certain way that would not create an unnecessary crisis. The Court found that the police did not act in bad faith and had the necessary probable cause before entering.

On the surface, these conclusions seem reasonable enough. Police chasing after a suspect who then runs into a house is a textbook example of exigent circumstances. It would be silly if those actions were nullified as being “police-created exigency.” Yet I can’t help but share Justice Ginsberg’s concerns that police could use this as an excuse to forcibly enter a home any time they hear suspicious noises. The police happened to be fortunate in this case that the suspect really was engaging in criminal activity. But what if they had been wrong? Who is to judge what “suspicious noises” are? The Court’s majority claimed that the suspect still had “ample protection” for privacy rights, such as a right to refuse to open the door, or to refuse to answer questions if they did. Because the suspects chose to destroy the evidence instead, they created the circumstances that allowed the police to come in.

Again, how are police to know that suspicious-sounding noises mean that the suspect is destroying evidence? What good is refusing to answer the door if police can just open it anyway? The Court seems just a little too casual with the rights of suspects here. Many criminal suspects end up facing a lifetime in prison under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines unless they have a strong criminal defense attorney representing them. It is important that they be given every benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, that did not happen here.