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Supreme Court expands exigent circumstances rule

When the people of Pennsylvania ratified the Bill of Rights in 1790, they approved the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people suspected of crimes in Pennsylvania and the other 49 states from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, this means that law enforcement officers need a search warrant to enter a suspect's home and evidence that is gathered in violation of the Fourth Amendment is thrown out of court. However, there is an exception to the requirement for a warrant known as exigent circumstances.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a broad definition exigent circumstances. Broadly defined, an exigent circumstance is an emergency situation that leads police officers to believe that evidence is about to be destroyed. The Supreme Court's ruling upheld the use of drug evidence that was obtained when officers broke into a suspect's home without a warrant. Despite the fact the Constitution forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, the court reached its decision on an 8-1 vote.

The ruling stems from a case in which police organized a crack cocaine sale and followed the alleged seller to his or her home. The police claimed to have smelled marijuana around the suspect's apartment complex and knocked on the suspect's door. The officers at the scene claimed to have heard sounds that they considered to be indicative of evidence destruction. The officers then broke open the door, saw the illegal drugs and arrested the suspect, despite failing to acquire a search warrant.

While state courts ruled in favor of the defendant, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision. Justice Samuel Alito issued a majority opinion, asserting that the exigent circumstance rule applied in this case. Justice Alito went on to argue, "There is no evidence that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment or threatened to do so."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling and issued a dissenting opinion. Justice Ginsburg wrote that the ruling "arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement in drug cases." Ginsburg reasoned that the police "had ample time to obtain a warrant." Ginsburg also took issue with the fact that the officers broke into the alleged dealer's home in lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate.

Source: UPI, "Warrantless searches expanded in drug case," 5/16/2011

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