WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a Lexington man who was arrested after police burst into his apartment without a search warrant because they smelled marijuana and feared he was trying to get rid of incriminating evidence.
Voting 8-1, the justices reversed a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that threw out the evidence gathered when officers entered Hollis King's apartment.
The court said there was no violation of King's constitutional rights because the police acted reasonably. Only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Officers knocked on King's door and thought they heard noises that indicated whoever was inside was trying to get rid of incriminating evidence.
Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court that people have no obligation to respond to the knock or, if they do open the door, allow the police to come in. In those cases, officers would have to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant.
But, 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 dissent, Ginsburg said her colleagues were giving police an easy way to routinely avoid getting warrants in drug cases.
"Police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, never mind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant," she said.
The case concerned exceptions to the Fourth Amendment requirement that police need a warrant to enter a home.
The issue was whether warrantless entry was justified after the officers' knock on the door triggered a reaction inside that sounded like the destruction of evidence.
An odd set of facts led to Monday's ruling.
Police were at King's apartment building only because they were chasing a man who sold cocaine to a police informant. The man entered King's building and ducked into an apartment. The officers heard a door slam in a hallway, but by the time they were able to look down it, they saw only two closed doors.
They didn't know which one the suspect had gone through, but, smelling burnt pot, chose the apartment on the left.
In fact, the suspect had gone into the apartment on the right. Police eventually arrested him, too, but prosecutors later dropped charges against him for reasons not explained in court papers.