Today in 2003: The Supreme Court rules unanimously in U.S. v. Banks

December 2, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryOn December 2, 2003, the Supreme Court gave law enforcement officers across the country the power to break down someone’s door 15-20 seconds after an unanswered knock.

As you would expect, the unanimous ruling – U.S. v. Banks – still requires that police obtain a valid search warrant, but the establishment of such a narrow timeframe between “knocking-and-announcing” and forcible entry tips the scales further away from privacy rights.

The “knock-and-announce” rule, established eight years earlier in Wilson v. Arkansas, simply holds that, in most circumstances, police officers must knock and announce their presence and authority before entering premises.

The facts of Banks are straightforward enough.

North Las Vegas Police Department officers received information that defendant Lashawn Banks was selling cocaine at home, and FBI agents got a warrant to search his two-bedroom apartment.

The police officers arrived at his apartment at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and they covered both the apartment’s front and back doors.

The police at the front door announced “police search warrant” and knocked on the door hard enough to be heard by officers at the back door.

According to the officers, there was no answer or noise coming from inside, and so after waiting 15 to 20 seconds, the officers broke open the front door with a battering ram.

Banks was in the shower and claimed that he didn’t hear anything until the door was smashed down, at which time he came out dripping wet to confront the police.

The subsequent search produced weapons, crack cocaine, and “other evidence of drug dealing.”

In response to the drug and firearms criminal charges, Banks moved to suppress evidence of the search, arguing that the police waited an unreasonably short time before forcing entry, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court didn’t agree with Banks, instead holding that since any longer than 15-20 seconds was an adequate amount of time for a suspect to dispose of evidence, it was not an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court in WashingtonWhile 15-20 seconds may seem like too short of an amount of time to dispose of evidence such as crack-cocaine, the Court, with their apparent extensive knowledge of the proper business practices of drug-dealing, knew better.

The Court held that a “prudent dealer will keep” his cocaine “near a commode or kitchen sink,” and that such a drug dealer would have been prepared to dispose of the drugs very quickly in the event of a police search.

Although that revelation may make the small window sanctioned by the Court more understandable, it is still a little disconcerting to know that the police can break down your door if you don’t respond to their knock within 20 seconds.

Of course, with the ruling of another Supreme Court case decided three years later, this point may be moot.

That case, 2006’s Hudson v. Michigan, held that a violation of the “knock-and-announce” rule doesn’t trigger the exclusionary rule – the principle that bars the admission of evidence obtained through unconstitutional means.

What does all of this mean?

The police may or may not knock before entering your home with a search warrant (though technically they’re supposed to, there’s really not a whole lot forcing them to anymore)

But if they do knock, you’d better answer quickly unless you want to buy a new door.