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Kentucky v. King Clarifies “Exigent Circumstances” Exception

On Behalf of | Dec 5, 2011 | Criminal Law

In May of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Kentucky v. King that police officers may rely on the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement so long as “police do not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment.” The Court’s decision is a technical one, but it has important implications for how police conduct searches of people’s homes.

Facts of the Case

The search at issue in King occurred after Lexington police witnessed a man selling drugs to an undercover police officer in the parking lot of an apartment building. Police followed the man into the building after the sale, but did not see which of two apartment doors the man entered. The officers smelled marijuana coming from one of the apartments, knocked on the door and announced themselves as police. They received no response, but believed they heard sounds indicating that the people in the apartment were destroying evidence. Relying on the rule that police may conduct a warrantless search of a home if there are exigent circumstances – circumstances making it necessary for police to act but not providing enough time to obtain a warrant – the police officers kicked in the door and found the defendant, King, with marijuana and cocaine. The police did not find, however, the person they had been following.

Court Decisions

The Kentucky Supreme Court overturned King’s conviction, reasoning that the police could not rely on the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement when the police created the exigent circumstances themselves by knocking on the door and announcing their presence. Had police not done that, King would not have made a move to destroy any evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, however, holding that as long as police do not threaten to do anything that would otherwise violate the Fourth Amendment, they may continue to rely on the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement to justify warrantless searches of a home. In this case, since the police merely knocked on the door as any private citizen is free to do, there was no threat of a Fourth Amendment violation and police were free to act in the manner they did.

Significance of the Decision

Some argue that King has expanded the ability of police to dispense with the warrant requirement. Under this latest interpretation of the exigent circumstances rule, many fear that unless the police explicitly threaten a Fourth Amendment violation, they are free to do what they like to get suspects to act in a manner that would justify a warrantless search.

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