Supreme Court Gives Cops More Power to Bust (Pot) Heads

By Jeff Forester 05/18/11

Is a police officer’s nose for the chronic as good as a warrant?

A sniff and a prayer.
Photo via laapush

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cops can sniff out marijuana just as well as trained drug dogs, striking down Hollis King's contention that Kentucky Police had illegally entered his apartment after smelling marijuana in the hallway. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Kentucky vs. King  that police could break down a door and search property without a warrant—as long as they "smelled marijuana," or heard the sounds of evidence being destroyed—in this case, the sound of objects “being moved inside the apartment.”  

Mr. King’s trouble began when Kentucky police officers pursued a drug dealer into an apartment building. They stopped at the apartment they believed the dealer had entered, knocked and announced their presence—then heard what they described as the sound of evidence being destroyed. They also smelled marijuana and kicked the door in, finding not the subject they were pursuing, but a shocked Hollis King instead. Marijuana and cocaine were in plain sight in Mr. King's apartment, police reported.

After a bit more searching, police located and arrested the original suspect in a different apartment.

Personal privacy advocates contend the ruling gives the police new powers to violate the Fourth Amendment. Justice Ruth B. Ginsburg, the lone dissenter, agreed, and wrote a biting response: "The court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement in drug cases. In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant."

Justice Alito countered for the majority that "occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for the warrant-less exigent-circumstances search that may ensue."

Green Celebrity News bristled at the ruling, noting “the variety of fragrances that could be pot smoke smells,” and lamenting the ease with which “police could bust in the door of your home for something as simple as confusing the scent of fresh cut pine Christmas trees with $125 a quarter ounce hydroponic pot.”

Leaving one to wonder, how in the world did Mr. King forget to put a rolled towel under his door?

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.