Kentucky v. King: U.S. Supreme Court Will Look at Exigent Circumstances Exception to Constitution’s Requirement for a Search Warrant

The United States Supreme Court announced last month that it will review a case involving the “exigent circumstances” exception to the Constitution’s requirement that the police get a search warrant before conducting a search or seizing property. We regularly confront similar matters when we litigate federal cases here in Georgia, Alabama and Florida and when one of these cases is taken up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. This case, Kentucky v. King, likely will clear up whether this particular exception to the warrant requirement can apply when the police themselves create the exigency that otherwise mandates that they act before getting a search warrant.

The police chased a suspected drug dealer into a hallway where he could have entered one of two doors. A strong smell of marijuana came from one of the doors. The officers knocked on that door and announced their presence, after which they heard sounds consistent with destruction of evidence. They then broke open the door, discovering drugs and the unfortunate Mr. King inside.

Our Constitution says that it is unreasonable to conduct a search and seizure unless a judicial officer has issued a warrant. Over the years, the courts have created so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that it looks more like Swiss cheese than a rule to protect privacy. The “exigent circumstances” exception means that the police get to break down doors without a warrant if there is some immediate need to act, for example when persons inside are destroying evidence, someone inside needs immediate help, or there is an immediate danger to the police coming from inside the residence. However, over the years the police have gotten smart and often create the exigent circumstance that lets them get around the warrant requirement. The courts have reacted to these situations in a variety of ways.

In Kentucky v. King the State lost in the lower courts when the Kentucky Supreme Court said that the officers should have reasonably anticipated that their knocking would goad those inside into making noise similar to destroying evidence, thus creating the very exigency that authorized the officers to enter without a warrant. The State explained in its Petition for a Writ of Certiorari that there are at least five different tests being applied by the various lower courts when dealing with similar situations.

We look forward to seeing how the U.S. Supreme Court rules, which likely will not occur until next year. The opinion below and briefs supporting and opposing the petition for certiorari are available here.