Supreme Court conflicted over police searches
By GINA HOLLAND
WASHINGTON- Detroit police did not bother knocking on Booker Hudson's door when they arrived with a warrant to search for drugs.
The case is being closely watched by law enforcement groups and justices seemed so divided that the outcome may turn on the replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The Senate confirmation hearing for Bush nominee Samuel Alito began on Monday.
Justices could use the case to make it easier for officers to execute search warrants. Or they could tightly enforce previous rulings that say police armed with warrants generally must knock and announce themselves or run afoul of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.
The state of Michigan, which is backed by the Bush administration, argued that even though officers made a mistake by rushing into Hudson's home, the blunder was not related to the finding of the drugs and should not require a judge to bar that evidence.
O'Connor seemed ready to rule against police.
"Is there no policy protecting the home owner a little bit?" O'Connor asked David Salmons, a Bush administration lawyer.
She said that the Detroit officer testified that he routinely went into houses without knocking and giving the homeowner time to come to the door. She predicted that policy would be adopted by "every police officer in America" if the court said there was no penalty.
Over the years the Supreme Court has clarified the so-called knock-and-announce rule, making exceptions for police who have reason to believe a suspect would be dangerous or try to get rid of evidence. In 2003, the court said that police officers don't have to wait longer than 15 or 20 seconds before breaking into a home to execute a search warrant.
In the Hudson case, officers called out that they had a warrant then went inside 3 to 5 seconds later. Hudson was convicted of cocaine possession and sentenced to probation after the 1998 search.
Justices will decide whether to throw out his conviction.
The court's four most liberal members, as well as the moderate O'Connor, seemed skeptical of the police side in the case during Monday's lively argument.
If the court is tied 4-4 without O'Connor, a new argument session could be scheduled when her replacement arrives. Alito, as an appeals court judge, has been deferential to police.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who replaced the late William H. Rehnquist last fall, asked tough questions of both sides. He told Michigan's lawyer, Timothy Baughman, that "it's a strong argument on the other side" that police will never announce their presence if a court does not require it.
Baughman and Salmons said that officers could face civil lawsuits for failing to adequately announce their presence.
The case is Hudson v. Michigan, 04-1360.
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