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May 18, 2011

If You Smoke Marijuana in Your Home, Be Very Quiet

Police will now have a much easier time justifying themselves if they force their way into your home without a warrant as a result of a United States Supreme Court opinion (Kentucky v. King) released on Monday. The Court justified the warrantless search of an apartment in Kentucky after police smelled marijuana and suggested that they had reason to believe that the persons inside were destroying incriminating evidence.
The Tennessee and United States Constitutions bar the warrantless search of a home except in certain circumstances. The issue in the Kentucky case was whether the police could create the emergency circumstance themselves.
In the case, the police were pursuing a drug suspect and knocked on the door of an apartment. The police testified in court that they thought they smelled marijuana coming from inside the apartment. After identifying themselves as police, they stated that they heard movement inside and suspected that evidence was being destroyed so they forced themselves inside. They found the Defendant, who was not who they were pursuing (he was in the apartment next door), smoking marijuana. They also found cocaine inside the apartment.
The defendant was sentenced to 11 years in prison. The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the conviction finding the drugs could not be used as evidence because the only emergency circumstances were those created by the police, who had loudly alerted those inside. The state court held that the police should have requested a warrant, which requires the review by a neutral magistrate before a search is authorized.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the state court. The United States Supreme Court found that while the Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches that in this case the police acted reasonably as exigent circumstances justified the search without a warrant as the officers reasonably feared evidence was being destroyed from the noises inside the apartment after they knocked.
Justice Ruth Ginsburg, was the lone dissenter from the court’s ruling. She stated that the majority of the court has armed the police with a way to routinely dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases. She said “In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”
If you believe you have been subjected to an illegal search of your home in Middle Tennessee you should contact an experienced criminal attorney. Vince Wyatt, David Raybin, or Ben Raybin may be reached at (615) 256-6666.