Kentucky v. King, or, how the Supreme Court thinks people should respond when the police bang on their door…

The Honorable Barry Kamins gave a great update on New York Search and Seizure Law last night for us lucky New York defense attorneys. One key Supreme Court case he discussed was Kentucky v. King, which states the Courts’ test for warrantless searches in ‘exigent circumstances’.  The case involved a pursuit of a suspect who disappears into an apartment building leaving the police, who are following closely behind, to decide which of two apartments the man has entered.  They smell marijuana coming from one apartment and bang on the door shouting, “Police, police, police!” No one comes to the door in response but the officers claim they hear the sounds of people moving and items being moved about. Determining that criminal evidence is about to be destroyed they announce they are coming in and knock down the door and enter the apartment.  The suspect they were originally chasing is, of course, not in this apartment at all, however they do find a few people, one smoking marijuana, as well as visible quantities of marijuana and cocaine inside.  In their decision determining whether the police created the exigent circumstances of the sounds of evidence possibly being destroyed, thereby nullifying the exception and creating a suppressible search, the court looked to whether the police violated or threatened to violate the 4th amendment prior to the exigency.  The Court framed it’s decision finding the warrantless entry by the police to be okay by narrowly focusing on the test to be used to determine when exigent circumstances have been caused by the police.  Here, they determined that the occupants of the apartment created the exigent circumstances prompting the police to enter by making the noises which suggested the destruction of evidence rather than answering the door and demanding a warrant or a reason for the police presence.  A  witty and critical review of the Court’s finding and the reality of how everyday citizens interact with the police can be found in Linda Greenhouse’s NY Times article, Justice in Dreamland. We as criminal defense attorneys advise people to ‘know your rights’ when dealing with the police, however, as many cases show us those rights are not always so clear and the black letter of the law versus how it is placed into practice and exercised in the real world is oftentimes quite different.  Police have incredible power in our society and sometimes a good offense, such as staying away from situations where the police may question you, obeying laws, etc. is not enough.  In that case, a call to your attorney and a great defense is your next best bet!

This post was originally published on June 14th, 2011 by the author, Jessica Horani, on and has been edited for content.

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