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Justices split on rule for searches

WASHINGTON — Police officers who smell marijuana coming from an apartment can break down the door and burst in if they have reason to believe this evidence might be destroyed, several Supreme Court justices suggested Wednesday.

In the past, the high court has said police usually cannot enter a home or apartment without a search warrant because of the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures."

The key issue in Kentucky vs. King is whether an "exigent" or emergency circumstance allows the police to enter a residence without a warrant. On Wednesday, the court's conservatives said they favored relaxing that rule when police say they have an urgent need to act fast.

On a night five years ago, police banged on the apartment door of Hollis King in Lexington, Ky., after they detected the smell of marijuana. They broke in the door when they heard sounds inside and arrested King for marijuana and cocaine possession.

Last year, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the search unconstitutional, but the justices sounded as though a majority will reverse that ruling.

"There's nothing illegal about walking down the hall and knocking on somebody's door, and if, as a police officer, you say, 'I smell marijuana,' and then you hear the flushing, there's probable cause," said Chief Justice John Roberts.

Several of the court's liberal justices, who grew up in apartments in New York City, expressed surprise.

"Aren't we just simply saying they (police) can walk in whenever they smell marijuana without bothering with a warrant?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"We start with the strong presumption that the Fourth Amendment requires a search warrant," added Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Obama administration lawyers joined the case on the side of the state's prosecutors.

First amendment challenges: California lawyer and dedicated atheist Michael Newdow is again challenging the national motto, "In God We Trust." His petition, placed on the court's docket Tuesday, argues that the invocation of God on official currency violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Separately, he is also challenging the phrase "So help me God" in the presidential oath. A third petition, challenging the Pledge of Allegiance, will soon arrive at the court. It could take several months before the justices consider the petitions in a closed-door conference.

Justices split on rule for searches 01/12/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:55pm]
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