WASHINGTON -- A closely divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police with a search warrant may rush into a house without giving occupants full warning and may use the evidence they find there.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said it would be rash to bar the use of evidence simply because police did not wait long enough to enter, a technical violation of the so-called "knock and announce" rule.
Criminals should not be handed a "get-out-of-jail-free card" in cases where police have a valid search warrant, said Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion for the majority.
The dissenters said the decision all but repealed a rule that had protected the privacy and dignity of homeowners.
New Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. cast the decisive vote. After Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stepped down in February, the court was evenly split on the case. Alito became the tie-breaker when he replaced her.
Until yesterday, the court has usually insisted that evidence be thrown out in cases in which police violate the Constitution's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." This so-called "exclusionary rule" was among the most controversial legal developments of the 1960s, and many law-and-order conservatives continue to chafe at it.
Suppressing evidence should be "our last resort, not our first impulse," Scalia wrote. His opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Clarence Thomas and Alito.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy supplied the crucial fifth vote, but wrote separately to emphasize that the exclusionary rule is "settled" and "not in doubt." At issue, he said, was only whether to extend the exclusionary rule to cases where police had a valid warrant to enter a home, but failed to give proper warning.
In 1995, the justices held unanimously that the 4th Amendment usually requires officers to knock on the door and call out "Police!" before they burst into a home. The rule helps ensure the safety of police and the privacy of residents, the court said.
Officers were told they should usually wait about 20 seconds after knocking and announcing their presence before they try to enter. But the court has said in past rulings that officers may move faster if they suspect residents are going to flush drugs down a toilet. In the current case, Detroit police acknowledged that they did not wait long before entering the home of Booker T. Hudson Jr. They had obtained a search warrant to look for drugs and guns.
In 1998, seven officers approached Hudson's house and saw nothing unusual. Several called out "Police! Search warrant," but less than five seconds later, the lead officer walked into the living room.
There sat Hudson with 23 plastic bags containing crack cocaine. Under the cushion of his chair, they found a loaded gun and five rocks of cocaine. Elsewhere in the house, police found more drugs.
Hudson was charged with drug and gun crimes but urged the judge to suppress the evidence, contending that police had violated his rights under the "knock and announce" rule.
A prosecutor agreed that police had violated the rule, and a trial judge suppressed the evidence. But the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the ruling, saying that suppressing the evidence was "not an appropriate remedy."
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.