The Cop Column
July, 2006
Sgt. Rick Hord
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office

A Not-so-Simple True/False Question

           True or False: The US Supreme Court says police officers need not “knock and announce” prior to entering a private home.

            If you answered “yes,” you may be a victim of over-simplified news reporting. Reducing complex court cases to headlines may do an injustice to our justice system.

            At issue is the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all searches and seizures, only the unreasonable ones.

            What is “unreasonable” is decided by the courts.

            The courts say your home is your castle, and the government may only under three circumstances:

                        1-With the consent of the occupant;

                        2-With a valid warrant issued by a court of jurisdiction, or;

                        3- In the presence of “exigent circumstances.” Without this provision, the fire department would need a warrant to pull you from a burning house.

            In the recent case, Detroit police with a search warrant entered the home of Booker Hudson, Jr. through the unlocked front door and found five rocks of crack cocaine in Mr. Hudson’s pocket, plus drugs elsewhere in the home. Stuffed between the cushion and armrest of the chair in which Mr. Hudson had been sitting was a loaded gun.

            There’s no allegation the search warrant was other than legal and valid. The problem was, when officers arrived, they announced their presence, waited “three to five seconds,” and then entered. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted, “the common law principle that law enforcement officers must announce their presence and provide residents an opportunity to open the door is an ancient one.” The State of Michigan conceded the officers should have knocked and waited a few seconds longer.

            The trial court refused to allow the gun and the drugs as evidence. A higher court in Michigan allowed the case to proceed, where the state won only a partial conviction. The state didn’t prove Mr. Hudson possessed the gun in the chair nor the drugs in the house, but he was convicted of the drugs in his pocket. Hudson appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, where a 5-4 decision upheld his conviction.

            Someone composing a headline might be tempted to write “High Court Says Cops Need Not Knock & Announce.”

            The question for the Court, however, wasn’t “May police ignore the knock and announce requirement?” but rather, “What should be the penalty for police who don’t  knock and announce?”  The Court decided sanctions less severe than throwing out the evidence would be appropriate, given the facts of this case.  Police agencies may discipline officers and a defendant who believes his rights were violated may file a Civil Rights lawsuit, even if he is convicted on criminal charges.

            Mr. Booker was sentenced to 18 months probation; his case spent almost eight years in court.

From our standpoint at the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, not much has changed. The rules for “knock and announce” are still in effect. We will still be careful to follow the many rules that govern how we do business.