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Kentucky v. King, or The Police Know Exigent Circumstances When They Hear Them

Posted in Searches & Seizures


Police officers set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine at an apartment complex in Kentucky and observed the deal take place. The officers then moved to intercept the suspect before he re-entered his apartment. The officers heard a door shut and detected an alleged strong odor of marijuana outside of two apartment doors, although they did not know which door the suspect had entered. The officers banged on the door of the apartment to the left and announced themselves. The officers then allegedly heard the sound of items being moved in the apartment. The officers announced that they were going to enter the apartment and kicked the door in, where they found Hollis King, his girlfriend and a guest who was smoking marijuana. The officers conducted a protective sweep of the apartment, discovering marijuana and powder cocaine in plain view. In a subsequent search, the officers discovered crack cocaine.

The police later entered the apartment to the right, which was the actual apartment which the suspect had entered.

King was charged with trafficking controlled substances and filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of his apartment without a warrant. The Kentucky Circuit Court denied the motion and King entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment. King appealed, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s denial of his motion to suppress, holding that the officers’ warrantless entry into the apartment was justified based upon “exigent circumstances” because the officers believed that evidence would be destroyed. However, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed, questioning whether the mere sound of people moving inside an apartment was sufficient to support a conclusion that evidence was being destroyed. It then held that the search was not justified by exigent circumstances because it was reasonably foreseeable that the occupants of the apartment would destroy evidence when the police knocked on the door and announced themselves. The Commonwealth of Kentucky then took its turn to appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In Kentucky v. King, which may be read here, in an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the majority noted the long-established exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that searches and seizures without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable where “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” (citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 394 (1978)). “Exigent circumstances” can arise where there is a need to prevent the “imminent destruction of evidence.”

However, the Court also recognized that an exception to the exception had developed—the police cannot rely on the need to prevent the destruction of evidence where the exigent circumstances were created or manufactured by the police themselves. (Citing United States v. Chambers, 395 F.3d 563, 566 (6th Cir. 2005); United States v. Gould, 364 F.3d 578, 590 (5th Cir. 2004)). The majority held that this exception unreasonably shrinks the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement, since the presence of law enforcement always “create” exigent circumstances where persons are engaged in illegal conduct.

The Court then ruled that where the conduct of the police is reasonable and they do not violate the Fourth Amendment prior to the exigent circumstances arising, a warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is allowed. The majority noted that “When law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen might do. And whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak.” (Citing Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 497-98 (1983)). The Court proceeded to reversed the decision of the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The Court’s actual holding in King, which has been discussed on NPR, is actually understandable—police do not “create” or “manufacture” exigent circumstances where they act reasonably, which understandably includes knocking on a door to in pursuit of a fleeing suspect. However, the concerns over the implications of King are also understandable. The decision suggests that sufficient exigent circumstances exist to search a premises where they knock and announce their presence, although hopefully lower courts will require something more when applying the decision.

The particular facts of the case itself are also troubling. The police in King searched the wrong apartment. In addition, is the mere sound of things being moved in an apartment sufficient to support a conclusion that evidence is allegedly being destroyed and to create exigent circumstances to search, especially where police are not certain who the occupants of the apartment are?


  • http://www.reevesandlynch.com/ Monica Lynch

    Very troubling case. But at least the Supreme Court remanded to the Kentucky court for a finding of exigency.
    Monica Lynch, a Placer County attorney