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Justices hear police search case

The Associated Press


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court considered Monday whether police officers should have knocked to announce their presence when responding to complaints about a party so loud that authorities could not be heard shouting their presence.

Several justices seemed ready to side with four Brigham City, Utah, police officers who tried in vain to get the attention of people at a July 2001 party before entering the home without a warrant and screaming, "Police!"

The officers entered the home after they peeked through a window and saw a teenager, who was being restrained by four adults, throw a punch that drew blood.

According to court filings, the police tried to get the attention of people at the party at the front of the house before walking to the backyard, where they saw two intoxicated teenagers.

Once on the back porch, an officer yelled, "Police," at a screen door. When he received no response, he opened the door, took a few steps inside and screamed, "Police," again.

"Why isn't screaming, 'Police,' enough?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia, who described requiring more as "absurd."

Once the adults realized the officers were inside the house, they allegedly became abusive and were charged with disorderly conduct, intoxication and contributing to the delinquency of a minor — all misdemeanors.

"That's the major matter we are resolving today?" Justice John Paul Stevens asked dryly.

A decision in the case could be significant if the justices want to set a standard police should use to enter homes without warrants during emergencies.

But the justices showed little desire to use "the party case" — as Justice Stephen Breyer called it — to set such an important requirement for police.

Justices focused on the noise — not the threat of violence — as justification for police to enter the home without knocking or without obtaining a warrant.

Brigham City wants the justices to reverse a Utah Supreme Court ruling that police were not justified in entering the home without a warrant.

A trial judge threw out the charges against the adults and ruled that police had violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches by failing to knock before entering the house.

"Isn't there something bizarre about saying reasonableness requires a totally futile gesture?" Justice David Souter asked attorney Michael P. Studebaker, who represents the adults.

Studebaker argued that police cannot break up a party without a warrant. "If they can make their presence known inside the home, they can make their presence known outside the home," he said.

Jeffrey S. Gray, Utah's assistant attorney general, argued that the Utah courts confused the situation by requiring police to choose between acting as a "caretaker" for the community to prevent violence and as law enforcement officers gathering evidence of a crime.

"It's very difficult for officers to make these decisions in the heat of the moment," Gray said. "We want officers to rescue people from harm ... not wait until you have to call the EMTs."

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, arguing for the Bush administration, sided with the city. He said the Constitution does not require police officers to be "spectators to escalating violence."

States supporting Utah in the case are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

The case is Brigham City v. Stuart, 05-502.

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