The Scent of Pot and Some Noise Enough to Allow Warrantless Search: Supreme Court

Michael Santo's picture

There might be a rush on air freshener, or air filters, after this: the Supreme Court has ruled that, under certain conditions, the scent of marijuana is sufficient to allow law enforcement, sans a warrant, to enter a residence and search.

The ruling came down Monday, with the Supreme Court ruling 8-1 that there was no violation of Kentucky resident Hollis King’s constitutional rights when police burst into his apartment without a search warrant because they smelled marijuana. The justices said the police acted reasonably. Only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

This ruling reversed a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that threw out the evidence gathered when officers entered Hollis King’s apartment. The officers did not have a search warrant.

Smelling the "evidence," authorities knocked on King’s door in Lexington, KY. They believed they heard noises which indicated the occupant was attempting to get rid of incriminating evidence. At that point, officers burst into King's home and confronted him.

In his opinion for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said that although people have no obligation to respond to the knock or, if they do open the door, allow the police to come in, the difference in this case was that sounds made officers believe that King was destroying evidence. If instead he had opened the door and refused the police entry, officers would have to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant. Instead, Alito said,

“Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame.”

In her dissenting opinion, Ginsberg said, "Police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."

Police were only at King’s apartment building because they were pursuing a man who sold cocaine to a police informant. The suspect entered King’s building and went into an apartment. However, officers did not see which door he went into. The officers heard a door slam in a hallway, but by the time they were able to look down the hallway, they only saw two closed doors.

As they didn’t know which door the suspect had gone through, when they smelled burnt pot, they chose the apartment on the left, which was King's. In actuality the suspect went into the apartment on the right. Later, authorities arrested that man as well, but prosecutors later dropped the charges against him for unknwon reasons.

Truly, it was the noise and not the actual scent of pot that led authorities to break down the door. Still, some air freshener might have helped.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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