The Supreme Court
Using the Right Not to Knock
Our next case deals with your rights regarding entry to your property without knocking. In a 1995 case, Wilson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does require police officers to knock before entering your home and identify themselves before attempting forcible entry, but also ruled that the “flexible requirement of reasonableness should not be read to mandate a rigid rule of announcement that ignores countervailing law enforcement interests.” The Supreme Court left it to the lower courts to determine the “circumstances under which an unannounced entry is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
One such test case for determining acceptable circumstances on the “no knock” law involved Steiney Richards, who was staying in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin on December 31, 1991, when police executed a warrant in a drug felony investigation. While the judge had signed the warrant to allow police to search Richards' hotel room for drugs and related paraphernalia, he did not give police the right to enter without knocking and specifically deleted those portions of the warrant.
When police knocked on Richards hotel room door at 3:40 A.M., the lead officer was dressed as a maintenance man and stated he was from maintenance. With him were several plainclothes officers and at least one man in uniform. Richards cracked open the door, but left the chain attached. When he saw the officer in uniform, he quickly slammed the door. The officers waited a few seconds then starting kicking and ramming the door to gain entry to the locked room.
“The standard of probable cause that has long served as the requirement to justify a police search of a person or personal property has been rapidly eroded by the war against drugs. Police have orchestrated Supreme Court sanctioned, heavily armed and unannounced entries into private homes to search for drugs without any solid evidence of criminal behavior, often on the basis of anonymous tips.”
—From American Civil Liberties Union's drug policy statement on abusive police policies
At trial, the officers testified they had identified themselves as police while they were kicking in the door. When they finally did break into the room, Richards tried to escape through the window and was caught. In the room they found cash and cocaine hidden in plastic bags above the bathroom ceiling tiles.
Richards tried to have the evidence that was collected in his hotel room suppressed at trial on the grounds that the officers failed to knock and announce their presence prior to forcing entry into the room. The trial court denied the motion and concluded the officers acted reasonably because he knew they were police officers and, if they hadn't acted the way they did, Richards might have tried to destroy evidence or escape. The judge emphasized the easily disposable nature of drug evidence in ruling in favor of the police.
Richards then appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court position. In reaching this conclusion, the Wisconsin court found it reasonable—after considering criminal conduct surveys, newspaper articles, and other judicial opinions—to assume that all felony drug crimes will involve “an extremely high risk of serious if not deadly injury to the police as well as the potential for the disposal of drugs by the occupants prior to entry by the police.” Therefore, the court concluded the possibility of a no knock entry exists with all felony drug cases. The Wisconsin Supreme Court also found that the violation of privacy that occurs when officers who have a search warrant forcibly enter a residence without first announcing their presence is minimal, given that the residents would ultimately be without authority to refuse the police entry.
Richards then had only one option left—appeal the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which he did. The case was argued on March 24, 1997. The United States Supreme Court did not take long to issue a unanimous ruling on April 28, 1997, affirming the lower courts. Justice Stevens wrote the opinion for the court and said:
So, while the United States Supreme Court is not ready to give a blanket exception for “no knock” entry for search warrants involving drug charges, the Court did hold that in circumstances when police have a good reason to suspect that announcing their presence and intentions may be dangerous, futile, or result in destruction of evidence, a “no knock” entry is justified. The Court also said that Richards' action to immediately shut the door after seeing the officers outside gave police sufficient justification for breaking into this room, especially considering the disposable nature of the drugs.