Newsbrief: Supreme Court Rules Cops Need Wait Only 20 Seconds Before Kicking Down Door 12/5/03

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The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police serving a drug search warrant need not wait for more than a few seconds after announcing their presence before forcibly entering the target residence. The ruling overturned a decision by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco -- the most liberal federal appeals court -- which had attempted to set up a matrix of conditions that would govern how long police officers must wait before breaking down the door.

In previous rulings, the Rehnquist court has grudgingly acknowledged the traditional legal norm that for searches to be "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment generally require police to knock and identify themselves before entering a home. But, largely driven by the logic of the war on drugs, the court has also carved out increasingly large exceptions, allowing police to conduct "no-knock" raids when they have reason to believe they are at risk or evidence may be destroyed.

It is the "no-knock" raids that are so familiar to viewers of COPS and similar pro-police programs, where heavily armed, SWAT team-style units burst into houses with guns drawn, screaming commands at frightened residents. Such raids have led to numerous deaths as residents shoot at the masked, screaming intruders, who typically arrive in the middle of the night, or as adrenaline filled police shoot the people inside -- sometimes with reason, sometimes not.

In the case in question, North Las Vegas, Nevada, police and FBI agents served a search warrant on LaShawn Banks, a suspected drug dealer. They knocked on the door, but after hearing no response for 15 or 20 seconds, broke it down. Banks was in the shower. Police handcuffed him, still naked and dripping wet, and interrogated him in the kitchen, where they recovered crack cocaine and guns. Banks argued that the evidence should be suppressed because police failed to give him an opportunity to answer the door.

While the 9th Circuit had attempted to set standards for "no-knock" raids based on a number of factors, including the crime being investigated, Justice David Souter, writing a unanimous opinion, said the Supreme Court "disapproved" of the 9th Circuit's effort. Police need flexibility, the Supreme Court said. "Though... this call is a close one," Souter wrote, "we think that after 15 or 20 seconds without a response, police could fairly suspect that cocaine would be gone if they were reticent any longer."

Randall Roske, who represented Banks, told the Associated Press the ruling would be seen as a green light by police. "Police are going to read this as, 'Knock and announce and kick the door in,'" he said.

George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg agreed. "This gives officers the leeway they were taking throughout the country," he told AP. "This is a case that suggests great deference to the police."

Visit to read the decision online.

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