Where the Bill of Rights Goes to Die

| Tue May. 17, 2011 9:21 AM PDT

So here's the story: police in Lexington, Kentucky, were chasing after some guy who'd just scored some crack. He went into an apartment building, but police didn't know what door he had gone into. So, smelling marijuana under one door, they pounded loudly and announced their presence. But they guessed wrong. It was just some random dude doing drugs, not the guy they were after. The dude, unsurprisingly, panicked when police suddenly started pounding on his door and tried to dump the evidence. Police, hearing this, busted down his door, arrested him, and eventually sent him to prison for 11 years.

But let's back up. The police busted down his door? Don't you need a search warrant for that kind of thing? Answer: no, not if there are "exigent circumstances" that make it urgent that police get in. For example, if a suspect is busily getting rid of evidence.

But back up again. This particular guy, it turns out, had actually done nothing to attract police attention in the first place, and the only reason he was flushing his drugs away was because police were pounding on his door. This is pretty predictable behavior, which means that the police created the exigent circumstances themselves and then used that as an excuse to bust down a door instead of getting a search warrant. Surely that's a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Well, maybe it was last week, but it's not anymore thanks to eight Supreme Court justices who ruled yesterday that this behavior is fine and dandy. As Scott Lemieux says, the war on drugs is "where the Bill of Rights goes to die":

Dismayingly, and demonstrating again that the Supreme Court essentially lacks a real liberal wing, the decision was 8-1, with both of Obama’s appointees in the majority....The key problem with the case, as [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg convincingly argues, is that it’s the latest example of the drift of the exigency exception away from actual emergencies and toward the mere convenience of the police. If the police have time to obtain a warrant and there isn’t an actual emergency, they should be required to obtain one. But when security in the home faces the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs, it generally loses.

But don't worry. This will never happen to a law-abiding person like you. Nothing to get in a lather about.

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