Police find illegal drugs after busting into wrong apartment complex

The smell of marijuana smoke and sound of evidence being destroyed is enough reason for police to knock down an apartment door and search the place without a warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In an 8-1 decision [PDF], the nation's highest court said the warrantless search of an apartment in Lexington, Kentucky was legal because of "exigent circumstances," which permits law enforcement officers to conduct a warrantless search if there is a strong likelihood of destruction of evidence.

In the case Kentucky v. King, uniformed Lexington police officers pursued a suspected drug dealer to an apartment complex. The officers approached an apartment door where they believed the suspect had entered, knocked loudly and announced their presence.

The officers said they could smell marijuana smoke and heard noises consistent with the destruction of evidence after knocking.

The officers then kicked in the apartment door -- which turned out to be the wrong apartment -- and entered, finding marijuana and powder cocaine in plain sight and finding additional evidence during a second search.

Lexington police officers eventually entered another apartment in the complex where they found the initial target of their investigation.

The Supreme Court of Kentucky had ruled that the initial search of the apartment was not allowed under the exigent-circumstances rule because the officers should have foreseen that knocking on the door would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. The court said the officers could not "deliberately create the exigent circumstances with the bad faith intent to avoid the warrant requirement."

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled there was no evidence that the police had acted in "bad faith" and that the smell of marijuana and the noises created inside the apartment were sufficient to establish that evidence was being destroyed.

"Where, as here, the police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment, warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

"Because the officers in this case did not violate or threaten to violate the Fourth Amendment prior to the exigency, we hold that the exigency justified the warrantless search of the apartment," the Supreme Court ruled, reversing the decision of the Kentucky Supreme Court.

"The court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases," Justice Ruth B. Ginsburg wrote in her lone dissent. "In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."